'Peace on earth and goodwill to all at Christmas! Isn't that a good idea?'
- Brian Haw
Brian Haw is the nut who incurred the blustering wrath of a governmental sledgehammer. Chiefly in order to boot him from Parliament Square where he had camped out for four years and shouted about the injustice of war, the Serious and Organised Crimes and Police Act 2005 was passed. This prohibits any spontaneous demonstration within half a mile of Parliament. With magnificent irony, Haw was then found to be exempt from the Act by the High Court; since his protest pre-dates it, he doesn't have to apply for permission to continue. Resounding 'd'oh'.
The message of the Act is clear; the government does not want protestors on its doorstep, and if it can keep them from its immediate eyeline then it might be able to ignore them further away also. It's a nasty, unjust little law that says nothing good about the government at all; it claimed its first convict recently in the inoffensive form of Maya Evans, who was arrested for reading out the names of soldiers killed in Iraq at the Cenotaph. In response, Tim Ireland of bloggerheads.com conceived a wizard wheeze to hold a carol service in Parliament Square; this would technically amount to a spontaneous demonstration and thus constitute an illegal activity under section 32 of the Act. He put the invitation about, extending it to the police and the Blairs (although technically the police weren't *notified*); bloggers took it up and spread it around. There was no authorisation, and everyone thinking of attending was warned of the risk of arrest they would be taking. It was to be a simple act of peaceful defiance. So, Halls' Soothers in pocket and wrists primed for cuff-burns, we went along.
The beauty of this thing was that it was guaranteed to succeed. If there were arrests, the images of criminalised rosy-cheeked carollers being led away would reflect appallingly on police and government; if there were none, the Act would be defied and the law shown to be an ass ripe for the spanking. Within minutes of arriving and taking candle in hand, it was evident that we were solidly in the realm of the latter circumstance. There was no police presence whatsoever; nary a rozzer in sight. There was a man with a trumpet together with Brian Haw, Maya Evans, Tim Ireland and over 100 others, and approximately one scurrying camera-hoiking journalist for every five of them. The absence of police was at once a great giddy triumph, and an anti-climax. There was shuffling and giggling in the small crowd, a happy sense of subversion as well as self-consciousness as newspeople wielded their big fluffy microphones, and Tim Ireland made a small speech that was mostly blown away into the hurtling Westminster traffic. Megaphones, being the tools of demonstrators, weren't employed until later (to call a minute's silence, rather ironically).
We started to sing, led by a conductor and the trumpeter. Song sheets were shared, candle flames guarded by cupped hands, and pangs of atheist transgression felt. We'd forgotten the poignancy of the melody of so many of the jolly Yuletide hymns, the unequivocal severity of some of the lyrics (who remembered Satan showing his face so often in 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen'?), and how damn difficult it is to identify the correct syllables to stretch out in 'The First Noel'. There was a degree of uncertainty for us in singing Christian hymns, too. If Christianity can accommodate non-believers mouthing its words without meaning them, then maybe that says something about religious tolerance (an issue that was meant to be in our minds as we stood there), but it was problematic. Singing Christian songs tacitly made Christianity an issue where it might have been better to emphasise no religion, and to say something just about humanity at a basic level where doctrine has no place. But we were probably only nit-picking our own conscience with that, and expecting too much of a simple act. 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town' and the other secular songs gave us respite from that internal wrangle, although we did wonder if perhaps we might be arrested under copyright protection laws if nothing else.
As the service progressed and our germy throats began to giveout, the atmosphere remained precarious; we were fairly sure we weren't going to be arrested, but in that knowledge we weren't sure what impact we were having by standing there singing, or at least practicing our John Redwood jaw-flap. There is a surge of something felt when you know you're one of maybe a million people on the streets protesting war, or part of a huge rally crowd being addressed by a succession of speakers, hearing the cheers and sensing a vast weight of conviction. Carol singing, though, was made somewhat surreal as a form of peaceful protest, unsteady on its feet. Brian Haw seemed to feel this tension, and proceeded to smash it with a full-throated, practiced rant when asked to lead the Lord's Prayer. There was some sense that this might goad some hidden cops to leap out from Winston Churchill's innards, even that it was intended to smoke them out since mere singing hadn't done it. It wasn't disappointing that this didn't transpire, but the whiff of unease remained.
The trouble with such demonstrations, you fret, is that they are easy to ignore, to dismiss. You could read in Blair's swift, pat dismissal of the early 2003 anti-war march a degree of worry and trepidation - these genuinely were people from across the board, great slews of them who had never thought of protesting anything before. Perceived *career* protestors are different, recognisable, categorisable, ripe for the stereotyping and as disposable as tissues. They are Brian Haw with his hat covered in badges and his foghorn oratory, the middle-class middle-aged quietly-politicised respectables, the dreads, the vegans. Inbetween songs someone announced that a picnic would be happening here on Saturday in the same spirit of defiance; someone else shouted 'Are you going to bring the sandwiches?', whereupon a woman near us piped up 'Hope they're vegan!' It was a superlative moment of self-parody, unless it wasn't. She didn't wag her finger sternly, but there was a 'careful now' tone in her voice that beat irony to a pulp. People who protest injustice often extend their principles to their diet in this way, which unfortunately can skew support for them, distance them from more moderate, meat-eating thinkers. A lot of people just think vegans are frankly mad, brains eroded by paucity of nutrients until only sanctimony and one-size-fits-all outrage remain. The vegan philosophy is so radical that it's easy for the other causes vegan support to be swallowed up in it, discounted. Even we, feeling sicker by the carol, had a caustic thought about whether or not a vegan conscience allows the killing of flu germs.
To this government, presentation is crucial, and the fear is real that the slightly grubby public face of protest can be used as an excuse to negate the ideology behind it. In this sense Maya Evans, a beautiful and petite flower of an activist (vegan chef though she may be), is valuable in that she is manifestly neither dangerous nor unwashed. People who can't help but take the government's side over righteous yet scary, shouty, skinny, grimy protestors will look at her and reconsider; some of their kneejerk prejudice will evaporate, enabling them to see the issues more clearly. Spin is a grotty and cynical thing, but perhaps you have to use the same tools as the people against whom you are standing. Haw is an admirable man, certainly, but his semi-hijack of the service, shouting about ugly political specifics where there had been singing about peace and love in general, nudged the event from its axis. Surreptitious glances were exchanged, eyes rolled, brows furrowed. It was the ludicrous cap on an event that flirted with ludicrousness from the start, from the bewildered rendition of 'Little Drummer Boy' ('pa... rum pum pum... pum?') to the megaphone-holler for a minute's silence. However, said minute's silence, always a powerful thing, reset it. A noisy crowd is a lot less remarkable than a silent one. Silence can't be strident or pious. It's all-inclusive with the impassive strength and humanity of... well, let's just say that the George Best silences seem quite trivial from here.
Regardless, the service did its job. The law, vague and ill-thought-out and dithering, was successfully broken. It was pleasing, a Good Thing. Sort of like the smoking of a Class C drug, without the selfishness. £300 was raised in donations for medical care for Iraqi children. Such protest is always going to be compromised in some sense, and it requires more faith to believe in its worth than it does to sing about shepherds quaking at the sight of a silent holy night. But you need a better reason than that to stop doing it.