Veteran anti-war campaigner Brian Haw has died after a long battle with lung cancer. 19th June 2011
Brian William Haw (7 January 1949 – 18 June 2011) was an English protester and peace campaigner who lived in a camp in London's Parliament Square from 2001, in a protest against UK and US foreign policy. He began his protest before the 2001 United States attacks, and became a symbol of the anti-war movement over the policies of both Great Britain and the United States in Afghanistan and later Iraq. He was voted Most Inspiring Political Figure at the 2007 Channel 4 Political Awards.
Brian Haw, who died on June 18 aged 62, became famous when he set up home in a tent in Parliament Square in a quixotic peace vigil and, despite heavy-handed efforts by the authorities to silence him, he remained there until last March
Initially Haw, a former carpenter who began his vigil in June 2001, was protesting about the economic sanctions imposed by the West on Iraq, which, he claimed, were responsible for the deaths of 200 Iraqi children per day. For months he sat on a chair, fasting and praying. Not only were his prayers fruitless, but in the meantime Britain and America invaded first Afghanistan, then Iraq.
Initially Haw was regarded as something between harmless eccentric and damn nuisance, but as public opposition to the war in Iraq grew and as the authorities embarked on attempts to silence him, he acquired the status of a folk hero, symbol of protest and thorn in the side of an unpopular government. In 2006 he was voted the most inspiring political figure at the Channel 4 political awards.
Brian William Haw was born a twin, by 25 minutes, on January 7 1949, the eldest of five children. The family lived for a while in Barking, Essex, and then moved to Whitstable in Kent. They were involved in an evangelical church; Brian found his faith aged 11 at Sunshine Corner on the shingle beach next to the Oyster Company.
His father had been a sniper in the Reconnaissance Corps during the war and was among the first to enter Bergen-Belsen after its liberation. Afterwards, he worked in a betting office. Twenty years after seeing Bergen-Belsen, he gassed himself in the kitchen at the back of the church. Brian was 13.
Apprenticed to a boatbuilder at 16, he joined the Merchant Navy, sending home £4 a week. He worked as a deckhand and eventually received his certificate to steer 27,000-ton ships. He passed through the Suez Canal, climbed the Pyramids and toured the ports of the Middle East and India. He returned from one voyage to do six months at a college of evangelism in Nottingham, after which he decided to embark on a freelance mission to bring peace to the world.
Northern Ireland during the Troubles was his first port of call. At Christmas 1970 he took himself and his guitar to Belfast, singing carols in the streets round the Shanklin and Falls Roads and handing out white peace balloons in Republican pubs.
Having, by some miracle, survived this adventure, he moved to Essex where he started a removals business, also working part-time as a carpenter. He married Kay, the girl across the road and they later settled on an estate in Redditch, Worcestershire.
But family commitments did not dampen Haw’s missionary zeal and in 1989, powerfully affected by the films of John Pilger, he set off for the killing fields of Cambodia. He stayed there for three months, but when he returned he found that people did not want to hear about it: “My church gave me 10 minutes in a midweek prayer meeting to talk about genocide,” he recalled.
He decided to refocus his crusade closer to home and in the 1990s continued his missionary work by taking disadvantaged local youngsters on family jaunts in his minivan. He was repaid by those he sought to help with bricks through his window and fireworks through the letterbox. When he sent a dossier on his problem neighbours to the CPS, his minivan was smashed up beyond repair. Parliament Square was a safer option.
On June 2 2001 he set up a makeshift camp on the grass but was soon moved off by the Greater London Authority. He then took up residency on the pavement opposite the Houses of Parliament, which falls under the jurisdiction of Westminster City Council. In 2002 the council applied to the High Court for an injunction to remove him, claiming that he was obstructing the pavement. But the court ruled against the council, on the grounds that Haw’s obstruction of the pavement was not unreasonable.
Subsisting on tobacco and food brought by well-wishers, Haw stuck it out through wind, hail, sleet, baking sun and torrential rain, haranguing the passing world through a megaphone while fielding the verbal bouquets and brickbats of passers-by. Meanwhile a rickety 40-metre-long wall of banners, placards, knocked-together information boards, handmade signs, peace flags, photographs (bloated Iraqi children and Tony Blair with a Hitler moustache), slogans (“murderer Bush”, “You Lie Kids Die BLIAR”, “Christ Is Risen Indeed!” etc), mushroomed around him and the local mice established new colonies amid the detritus.
Haw’s continuous use of a megaphone to get his message across led to objections by MPs and in 2003 the House of Commons Procedure Committee recommended the law be changed to prohibit unlicensed protests in the square on somewhat dubious security grounds. Although at first the prime minister Tony Blair had cited Haw as a symbol of Britain’s love of free speech, come 2005 he was desperate to get rid of him.
The Procedure Committee’s recommendation was implemented in 2005 in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) in a provision which came to be seen as one of New Labour’s most symbolic attacks on liberty and led, among other things, to the arrest of a woman for reading out the names of the Iraq dead at the Cenotaph.
It made little difference in the short term, however, to its target who, in the 2005 general election stood as a candidate in the Cities of London and Westminster to oppose the Act which was yet to come in to force. He received 298 votes. Subsequently he won an application for judicial review of the Act on the grounds that it required all protests to have authorisation from the police “when the demonstration starts”, a provision which would not apply in his case as his demonstration had begun before the passage of the Act.
The High Court agreed, but the Court of Appeal thought differently and the judgement was reversed in 2006.
In the meantime, however, Haw had applied for permission to continue his demonstration, and received it on certain conditions, including a limit on the size of his placards to no more than three metres wide. He was unwilling to comply and in May 2006, 78 police arrived and removed all but one of his placards, charging Haw with a breach of the conditions of the 2005 Act.
In January 2007, however Haw was acquitted on the grounds that the conditions he had been accused of breaching were not sufficiently clear, and that they should have been imposed by a police officer of higher rank.
Meanwhile Haw had become an internationally recognised figure. He appeared on CNN — both English and Spanish versions — and for a while had his own daily 45-minute slot on Mexican radio. In Britain, tour guides included him in their itineraries and he featured in documentaries and docudramas about Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war.
In January 2007 the artist Mark Wallinger recreated the protest banner confiscated by police in its entirety as an exhibition entitled State Britain at the Duveen Gallery. It attracted wide publicity and won Wallinger that year’s Turner Prize, the judges declaring the work to be “visceral and historically important” and combining “ a bold political statement with art’s ability to articulate fundamental human truths”.
Although rumours that Haw would stand as a candidate in the 2008 mayoral elections proved unfounded, he remained determined to soldier on: “On June 2 2001, the police came along and said: 'How long you going to be here, Brian?’ I said: 'As long as it takes.’”
Brian Haw had recently been receiving treatment in Germany for cancer. With his wife Kay, he had seven children, but his Parliament Square vigil tested the marriage to breaking point and they were divorced in 2003.