Brian Haw (1949-2011)

‘The most honest man in Westminster’ has died, aged sixty-two

A decade of protest ended over the weekend, when Brian Haw lost his battle against lung cancer. Often described as ‘the most honest man in Westminster’, Haw had been the symbolic focus of public opposition to the so-called ‘war on terror’. As his continuing presence outside Parliament embarrassed the British ruling class, he also became embroiled in legal battles, as successive governments clamped down on freedom of expression. It is a sad fact that as Haw lay dying, the UK was involved in yet another war for oil – this time in Libya – on top of the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Haw’s early life doubtless played a part in the formation of his opposition to war. When Brian was just thirteen, his father committed suicide. As a young sniper, he’d been one of the first soldiers to enter Bergen-Belsen after it had been taken from the Nazis. In a grim echo of holocaust atrocities, he chose death by gas.

Brian drew closer to his family’s evangelical Christianity after this tragedy, and joined the Merchant Navy to support the rest of his family. This work took him all over the world, and he was able to witness many terrible inequalities, whilst gaining an appreciation and respect for the humanity of people from around the globe. Later, his faith and desire for a peaceful world took him to Troubles-era Northern Ireland, and war-torn Cambodia.

The one man Parliament Square camp actually began before 9/11, in June 2001. At the time, the father of seven was protesting the western sanctions against Iraq, which were often likened to a state of siege, and killed an estimated half a million children. When the ‘war on terror’ was declared, and the invasion of Afghanistan began, Haw quickly became a symbol of the fledgling anti-war movement.

As public opposition to then Prime Minister Blair’s alliance with US President George W. Bush grew in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, ruling class representatives sought to bully, intimidate, and disrupt Haw’s activities – marking a watershed in the attack on democratic rights. In October 2002, Westminster City Council tried to prosecute him, on the grounds that he was causing an obstruction, but the case failed as he blatantly was not impeding anyone. MPs started claiming that Haw’s use of megaphone was distracting them from their office work, and a House of Commons Procedure Committee inquiry in summer 2003 recommended that permanent protests in Parliament Square be banned, supposedly because terrorists could hide bombs amongst Haw’s placards and other paraphernalia.

Spot the bomb – a section of Brian’s protest in March 2006

In 2005, the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) was passed, largely in order to remove Haw. However, the situation descended into farce when it was found that because he had been camped on Parliament Square long before the Act was passed, Hawwas the only person in the world to whom it did not apply. Eventually, under pressure from the government, the Court of Appeal overturned Haw’s judicial review, and declared that the Act did indeed apply to him. On 23rd April 2006, police removed all but one of Haw’s placards, citing alleged infringements of SOCPA. This seventy-eight officer pre-dawn raid cost £27,000. Haw’s legal battles and brushes with the police lasted almost until his death, as he fought London Mayor Boris Johnson’s attempts to evict his camp before the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Brian Haw will be remembered with great fondness by his many activist friends, who often praised both his steely determination and his humility. His death will leave a huge, invisible gap in Parliament Square, an area in which free expression is now effectively banned. That he was able to maintain his protest for a decade, and stay alive on food donated by well-wishers, is a testimony to the enduring strength of public anti-war opinion, of which Haw was often the only visible expression, once the anti-Iraq war ‘movement’ wound down, and widespread demoralisation set in.

In a period when working class struggle was first anaesthetised by cheap credit, and then held in check by trade union bosses, it is easy to see what appeal Christianity – that sigh of the oppressed, that heart of a heartless world, that spirit of a spiritless situation – would hold for sensitive, principled pacifists such as Haw. Certain forms of it hold out the hope – illusory as it is – of a new kingdom of heaven on earth, where inequality and war would be no more, and humanity could live in brotherly love. But irritating though he was for the political establishment, Haw – or even a million Brian Haws – couldn’t have stopped the war machine. Imperialist war is rooted in the struggle of nations for control of prize material resources, not by any ‘evil’ per se. It can only be ended by the international working class, when we put our hands on the economic levers of society, and run the world in our own interests. For all Brian Haw’s courage, he made little contribution to popular understanding of what causes war, and how it can truly be prevented. His was a protest very much of its time.

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