Don’t arrest Brian Haw, but don’t idolise him either
The gathering of homeless conspiracy theorists in Parliament Square isn’t a protest – it’s a public nervous breakdown.
As a supporter of the right to protest, I am opposed to yesterday’s arrest of Brian Haw, the peace campaigner in the badge-covered hat who has been plonked outside Parliament since June 2001 making incoherent statements about baby-killing in Iraq and Afghanistan. But supporting Haw’s right to protest doesn’t mean supporting his protest. Indeed, if there’s anything more backward than the police sweeping Haw off the street to make way for the Queen’s arrival at the State Opening of Parliament, it’s the celebration of Haw by other sections of the political elite as a ‘hero’, the ‘most inspiring political figure in Britain’, and a ‘brilliant man’ who is standing up to Britain’s ‘war machine’.
In many ways, the gathering of homeless-looking conspiracy theorists on Parliament Square isn’t a protest at all – it’s the peace movement having a public nervous breakdown. For nine years Haw has been displaying photographs of dead or injured babies, loudly accusing Britain of carrying out ‘genocides’, and sporting so many badges on his head that he could probably single-handedly deflect all of the sun’s harmful rays. Over the years he has been joined by conspiracy theorists (on Saturdays) who carry placards listing the names of people ‘Murdered By The Freemasons’, and more recently by a sprawling eyesore of a peace camp made up of cranky 9/11 truthers and a homeless ‘King and Queen’ called Tarquin and Tracey who drink booze from Starbucks cups and make speeches about war.
The camp perfectly captures what it means today to be ‘anti-war’: it’s not about being politically driven towards the tangible goals of freedom and equality, but about making a long drawn out yelp of general and inchoate rage against the powers-that-be and stuff. Haw’s camp and its offshoots are physical manifestations of the powerful feeling of impotence and anti-political cynicism that underpins ‘anti-war’ agitation these days. As Haw said when picking up one of the numerous awards he has won: ‘Stop committing this genocide this slaughter of the nations looting the nations it’s about the oil folks it’s about the arms industry.’ That’s less a political statement of intent than an expression of personal exasperation dolled up as campaigning against genocide.
Some people mistake the longevity of Haw’s protest as a sign of gritty political determination; in fact it demonstrates the opposite. A fawning American civil rights outfit describes Haw as an ‘icon of the British peace movement’ and hails his camp as ‘the longest-running individual protest’. Yet the never-ending nature of Haw’s camp only highlights the absence of will, clarity and political coherence in the peace movement. Most normal protests come to a natural end because they have clear (or clear-ish) goals which are either met or compromised on, often unfortunately, when the protesters realise there has been an unfavourable shift in the balance of forces. Lacking anything like a literate demand or a desirable endpoint – that is, lacking the politics and language of traditional radical protest – Haw’s camp can just trundle on forever, like a permanent, slow-motion, on-a-loop standoff between disorientated peace activists and the equally disorientated authorities.
The Westminster police and the New Labour government made numerous efforts to force Haw to move on. In 2005 New Labour even passed a piece of legislation specifically designed to shift Haw, only to realise later that it could not be enforced retrospectively and therefore Haw had the right to stay. D’oh! No doubt these were illiberal attempts to shut up a protest just because it was giving parliamentarians (and every normal person who has walked through Parliament Square over the past nine years) a severe headache. But I am just as worried about the motives of those members of the political and media elite who have beatified Haw, who seem selfishly keen to preserve his camp as a symbol of radicalism in order to satiate their own guilt about no longer being radical and in fact having turned into pompous suits.
Sections of the establishment love Haw. In 2007 artist Mark Wallinger won the prestigious Turner Prize for recreating Haw’s camp inside the Tate. Some MPs regularly visit Haw. A couple of years ago the viewers of Channel 4 News – who of course, in the image of their idol Jon Snow, are the most liberal, pinko, anti-Clarkson news viewers of all – voted Haw the ‘most inspiring political figure of the year’ (he even beat that other hero of the Channel 4 classes – John Sentamu, the parachuting bishop and self-publicist – who came second). Yet what really drives this radical/establishment worship of Haw is the belief that if Haw’s camp stays in Parliament Square, if Haw lives there forever eking out an existence on free sandwiches from Tony Benn, then it shows that ‘we’ haven’t given into Blairism and war and bad things in general. Haw’s camp is used as a kind of balm for soothing the consciences of the liberal elite.
That is why Jenny Jones of the Green Party says ‘Brian is doing us all an amazing service’. She describes him as ‘the visible presence of widespread opposition to the aggression on Iraq’ and a ‘constant reminder [that the government] is out of touch with the people’. If Haw is moved, she says, ‘it will diminish the whole of society’. Here Haw is cynically turned into a substitute for any real or principled antiwar movement. The movement that emerged in 2003 may have faded into a mess of dodgy politics and intra-left rivalry, having failed to inspire or galvanise the mass of the population, but so long as Haw stays put he can be a one-man symbol, the ‘visible presence’, of an apparently ‘widespread opposition to war’. Haw is turned into a performing monkey of anti-Iraq War activists who will suffer personal crises of convictions and doubt if he ever leaves and goes back to normal living.
Even worse, some leading politicians support Haw’s protest not because they actually believe in real freedom of protest and speech (we know that they don’t) but because the continuing existence of Haw’s camp is for them a convenient symbol of the traditions of freedom and openness. Leading Lib Dems Susan Kramer and Vince Cable have described Haw’s camp as ‘a reminder that we live in a democracy’, arguing that its removal would be a ‘sad day for freedom of speech’. So the democratic spirit and the lust for freedom might be dead inside parliament, but at least some MPs can glimpse it on the lawn outside. Haw’s camp is super-cynically defended by some politicians as one tiny piece of evidence that Britain is still, despite the obliteration of liberties over the past 15 years, a freedom-loving country at heart. Unable to put an inspiring case for freedom and democracy either inside or outside the parliamentary chamber, politicians point to Haw’s mess on the lawn and say: ‘See? We ARE still a tolerant nation. We let this bloke stay here for years.’
It really is time that Haw’s mad, pointless, shrill protest was wrapped up and moved out of Parliament Square, by the man himself, of course, rather than by the state. If Haw has any sense he will use the fact of his being arrested to announce a ‘rethink’ of his camp. After all, he is clearly stuck in a rut – a rut surrounded by posters of dead babies and drunk conspiracy theorists – and could probably do with a way out. Brian, liberate Parliament Square, liberate the debate about freedom of speech and antiwar politics, liberate mine and everyone else’s ear drums, liberate yourself – go home.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.
Previously on spiked
Emily Hill argued that Mark Wallinger’s Brian Haw installation was neither political nor art. Kenan Malik argued that state-defined boundaries of speech limit everyone’s freedom of speech. Nathalie Rothschild criticised the arrest of an anti-gay protesting Baptist and attended a demo in support of photographers’ right to snap in public places. Tim Black said that football fans need freedom of speech, too. Or read more at spiked issues Free speech and Liberties.