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Home > Politics

Brian Haw: Protesting Too Much?

31 March 2006

It's vitally important to have the courage of your convictions, not to mention the courage of other people's. But there's sticking to your guns, and there's being glued to them in a way that incapacitates you. Sometimes you can shock yourself when you realise you've revised your view on something, but it's worth checking to see if you're reaching a limit with it rather than dismissing it as a moment of moral weakness. When Brian Haw was arrested on Sunday, it gave us pause - we realised that actually, while not giving an inch of support to the craven arresting officers or the hogwash law they were upholding, something inside us had changed. Or at least we'd allowed the frustrations we usually felt obliged to sit on - rather like an overstuffed suitcase - a little bit of oxygen.

Haw has been protesting for peace outside Parliament since 2001. An attempt to evict him by bringing in new restrictions about spontaneous protest within a mile of the seat of government backfired beautifully last year, when Haw pointed out to the High Court that the law couldn't be imposed retroactively, and so he was perfectly within his legal as well as moral rights to stay. It wasn't much of a surprise to hear of his arrest at the weekend for, according to his site, refusing to 'give one of his banners to the police'. Goodness knows what the police wanted with it, but there you go. Ultimately it's all grist to Haw's protest mill - it reflects very poorly on the police, and reminds us all afresh of the stupidity of that law and of the ongoing discontent about our international exploits. Which should mean that it's another blow struck for the staunch anti-war contingent - only it doesn't feel like it. It feels like another exasperating, exaggerated move in a pantomime people have long stopped watching.

Figureheads have a hard time of it. They rise to their unelected positions due to their personal charisma and fire, and their willingness to place weary arse on soggy grass for five years and beyond. But they come in for harsh criticism for misrepresenting the more moderate voices they claim to foghorn for, and for losing sight of their original ideals in a narcissistic whirl of mythology and semi-celebrity. This may or may not be true of Haw. It is difficult to continue to back him up - he insists that he can't leave until he's 'won', but won what? The right to stay? He's emphatically got that under his belt, and it was the kind of triumph you can't really top. The war? No, no. The ear of Tony Blair? What would he want with Blair's ear? What would Blair's ear want with Haw? Now that Parliament has been forced to accept Haw's presence on their lawn, it has to figure out how to live with it, and the way to do that is to tune him out. His constant haranguing isn't 'keeping up the pressure'. Rather, like any other continual noise, it's making itself into dismissable background. Haw is being reduced to a scrap of political leverage in a fishing hat, and with the squeaky wheel goes the rest of the creaking anti-war bandwagon.

It's sad, and shit, that at this stage it's a toss-up as to whether Haw would do more good/less damage to the limping anti-war cause by staying or by going. No one could possibly say he hadn't done a ton more than his bit if he packed up tomorrow and left. Imagine the damning shots of council workers clearing away his banners. Also he'd be showing that, while he insists that in maintaining his vigil he's seeking a better future for his seven children, he recognises that they could probably do with a better present as well. He'd cancel out any risk of becoming a clownish embarrassment or - worse - irrelevance to the cause which must remain bigger than any one person, and would ensure that his legacy would stand. His absence from the square, along with all his tatty paraphernalia, is possibly the only thing that would now have more impact than his dug-in presence. It would speak not of apathy or of defeat but of disgust - and it'd provide nice dramatic tension, that spot, waiting for a succession of followers to occupy it, get arrested, re-occupy it. Stir things up. Be a pain in the parliamentary arse which is now numbed to Haw's hoarse daily jabbings.

At present there's a trade-off going on - the government will suck up the bad publicity they get whenever the police contrive to arrest Haw or other exclusion zone protestors, because they know it'll balance out in the media as soon as the pictures of Haw are printed. The public sigh 'oh, the berk in the hat again', and the actual issues of free speech and the desire for peace and justice waft away on the wind as usual. That's not Haw's doing, but he should recognise now that he's on dodgy ground as a notorious figure with the capacity to overshadow what he stands for, and whom he stands for. He's perfectly shaped to be a media pawn. Perhaps the best we can do is just stop writing about him, and concentrate on writing about the issues instead.

Or maybe we could send Trinny and Susannah down to Westminster with a selection of *nouveaux chapeaux*.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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