Wednesday 22 February 2023

Britain has finally found the time and the space to erect a statue in memory of its intrepid Prince among Peace Protesters, Brian Haw

Brian, who died at the age of 62 in 2011, was a tenacious peace campaigner who, in 2001 took up residence in Parliament Square, beneath a banner that read : "Stop Killing My Kids" and refused to relinquish his patch for nearly 10 years. He was a symbol of the protest against Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision to take Britain into war in Afghanistan and Iraq and a 'cause célèbre' for those in Britain who fought for the right of the individual to carry out unlicensed protests in public. Now. twelve years later, Brian's friend, the actor Mark Rylance, has successfully spearheaded a campaign to have a statue, in his honour, created and set up in London.

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Brian was born with his twin brother, in January1949 and was raised, the eldest of five children in a family which lived for a while in Barking, Essex, and then moved to the harbour town of Whitstable in Kent. Before he was born, his father had been a sniper in the Reconnaissance Corps during the Second World War and was among the first to enter the Bergen-Belsen Extermination Camp after its liberation. Back in civilian life he worked in a betting office. At the age of eleven Brian found his Christian faith at the ‘Sunshine Corner’ beach mission on Tankerton Slopes, just outside Whitstable. Then in 1962, when he was thirteen, he and his family faced the tragic news that his father had gassed himself to death in the kitchen at the back of the local Evangelical church. 

Brian left school at the age of sixteen in 1965 and was apprenticed to a boatbuilder, however, he didn't finish serving his apprenticeship and joined the Merchant Navy instead, sending home £4 a week to supplement the family's income. Initially, he worked as a deckhand and, at sea, 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, almost certainly St. John's, which stated that its mission was : "To inspire creative Christian learning marked by evangelical conviction, theological excellence and Spirit-filled life, that all who train with us might be equipped for mission in a world of change". It's impact on Brian was reflected in the fact that he now decided to embark on a freelance mission to bring peace to the world.

In the first part of his religious calling, he took himself off to Northern Ireland during the Troubles and at Christmas 1970 could be found with his guitar in Belfast, singing carols in the streets round the Shanklin and Falls Roads and handing out white peace balloons in Republican pubs. On his return to mainland Britain he moved to Essex where he started a removal business and worked part-time as a carpenter. He married Kay, the girl across the road and they later settled on an estate in Redditch, Worcestershire. 

The appearance of family children and family commitments did not dampen Brian's missionary zeal and at the age of forty in 1989, after being powerfully affected by the BBC films of reporter John Pilger, he set off for the killing fields of Cambodia.(link) He stayed there for three months, but when he returned he found that people did not want to hear about it and recalled : “My church gave me 10 minutes in a midweek prayer meeting to talk about genocide”.

Brian now 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. Local anti-social behaviour against him surfaced in the shape of bricks through his window and fireworks through the letterbox and when he sent a dossier on his problem neighbours to the Crown Prosecution Service, his minivan was smashed up beyond repair. 

In 1998 he was inspired to start campaigning after being attracted by the aims of the 'Mariam Appeal', founded by the politician George Galloway, then a Member of Parliament and Princess Sarvath, wife of then Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan, who was patron of the Appeal. It aimed : "To provide medicines, medical equipment and medical assistance to the people of Iraq; to highlight the causes and results of the cancer epidemic in Iraq and to arrange for the medical treatment of a number of Iraqi children outside Iraq". 

The campaign made clear, that shortages were due to the sanctions and in particular the British sanctions, imposed on Saddam Hussein’s regime. As a result, in the summer of 2001, Brian began his protest in Parliament Square,  sleeping in a tent and surviving on food brought by supporters. 

Brian said at the time :I want to go back to my own kids and look them in the face again, knowing that I’ve done all I can to try and save the children of Iraq and other countries who are dying because of my government’s unjust, amoral, fear and money-driven policies”. In reality, his wife Kay, was left bringing up their seven children back in Redditch without him, as a consequence the marriage broke and when he was fifty-four in 2003, they were divorced. (link) Brian's love for his children clearly remained undiminished. (link)

When he took up residency on the pavement opposite the Houses of Parliament, he fell under the jurisdiction of Westminster City Council and in 2002 it applied to the High Court for an injunction to remove him, claiming that he was obstructing the pavement. The Court ruled against the Council, on the grounds that Brian’s obstruction of the pavement was "Not unreasonable". (link)

Brian's days of praying and fasting turned into months of protest as he outlasted others who had brought their temporary grievances to the pavement opposite the Houses of Parliament. Soon, he was no longer protesting about sanctions, but against the build-up to the war in Iraq, then the War itself and the occupation that followed. He stuck it out through wind, hail, sleet, baking sun and torrential rain, haranguing the passers by through a megaphone while fielding the verbal bouquets and brickbats of passers-by.(link)

His rickety 40-metre-long wall was filled with banners, placards, knocked-together information boards, handmade signs, peace flags, photographs and his slogans : “Murderer Bush”, “You Lie Kids Die BLIAR”, “Christ Is Risen Indeed!”.(link) (link)

Brian was now championed by two of the best-known opponents of the wars in Iraq and later Afghanistan, the political activist Tony Benn and the comedian and activist Mark Thomas. Brian himself vented some anger on those who had thought a single march in 2003, would force the Government to stop its involvement in Iraq. In his view, if 100,000 people had arrived and refused to move for a week, war would have been averted and he said : "It wasn't so hard Just to come and sit in front of this place and protest".

Brian's continuous use of a megaphone to get his message across led to objections by MPs. Prime Minister Tony Blair had cited Brian as a symbol of Britain’s love of free speech but by 2005, he too was desperate to get rid of him. Brian's greatest legal challenge came in that year, when the 'Serious Organised Crime and Police Act' was passed by the Blair Government  banning any public protest within one kilometre of Parliament Square. Particularly troubling for Brian was Section 132, which would allow police to remove any permanent protesters in the Square. "Serious organised crime?" Brian asked. "Do they really think I'm the Godfather?". 

In the 2005 General Election, Brian 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 Government successfully appealed against the judgment in May 2006 and Brian was given permission to remain under strict conditions governing size of his banners and the use his megaphone. However, his failure to comply led to confrontations with the police and later that month 78 police officers arrived and removed all but one of the banners. Other protesters pitched tents on the site to show solidarity with him and attempts to limit his protest led, ironically, to its growth. 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'.

In January 2007 the artist Mark Wallinger recreated the protest banners confiscated by police in their entirety as an exhibition entitled 'State Britain' at the Tate Gallery. It attracted wide publicity and won Wallinger that year’s Turner Prize. The judges declared the work to be : “Visceral and historically important” and combining : “A bold political statement with art’s ability to articulate fundamental human truths”. 

The installation consisted of a meticulous reconstruction of over 600 weather-beaten banners, photographs, peace flags and messages from well-wishers that had been amassed by Brian over five years from 2001 to 2006. Faithful in every detail, each section of his  peace camp from the makeshift tarpaulin shelter and tea-making area to the profusion of hand-painted placards and teddy bears wearing peace-slogan t-shirts had been painstakingly replicated. On display, 'State Britain' was configured as one long line forty-three metres in length, which accurately copied the way Brian's protest camp was displayed along the pavement opposite the Houses of Parliament.

Brian now became an internationally recognised figure and appeared on CNN in both English and Spanish versions and for a while had his own daily 45-minute slot on Mexican radio. In Britain, City of London tour guides included him in their itineraries and he featured in documentaries and docudramas about Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war.

As the years passed, his popularity waned, but he kept doggedly on, sustained by food and cigarettes given to him by his supporters who saw him as another in the line of tenacious Christian protesters bearing witness. He was uncomfortable speaking about the practical nature of his life on the pavement and questions about survival, sleeping habits, showers, the fumes and police presence were often ignored or deflected. His skin became leathery and his nose was broken twice. True to the last, when he finally left the pavement in March 2011, where, propped up on crutches, he was still warning onlookers and passers-by of the effects of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Stoical to the end, he was never without his trademark cap covered with anti-war and "Keep My Muslim Neighbours Safe" badges, with his megaphone by his side. 

At the time of his death in 2011, Westminster Council was preparing a court order to remove the protest from the Square altogether. Brian's family and supporters said that police harassment and physical abuse from passers-by had affected him psychologically and, weakened by constant exposure to the elements, his health began to suffer and he died a year after his diagnosis with lung cancer. 

After his death the creation of a permanent memorial to his life and protest was organised by friends, supporters and patrons in the shape the actors Vanessa Redgrave and Sir Ian McKellen, the politician Tony Benn, the film director Ken Loach and the CND veteran Bruce Kent. As a result a maquette, showing Brian leaning on two sticks was made by sculptor Amanda Ward, who was a friend. Fund raising was started for the estimated £60,000 cost of a full size statue and campaigners hoped eventually to win planning permission for the statue to stand near Winston Churchill in Parliament  Square, but accepted that it might be difficult to get Westminster Council to give permission given the fact that it had spent years trying to get rid of him. 

The original plan to erect the statue in dedication to Brian bore no fruit, Now, however, Mark Rylance, Oscar-winning actor who was a friend of the Brian has revived the plan to get the statue erected in his memory and said : "He was a committed voice in Westminster for longer than most of our prime ministers. So on that basis alone he deserves a statue". When he was alive, Brian had made a big impact on Mark,to the extent he said : "I feel like I got my conscience awakened by him". Mark often called in on Brian on his way back from the West End stage and said : "I live in South London so my way home was through Parliament Square, and I would see him out of the window of the bus. Or if I was riding my bike, I'd stop and have a chat with him in the night and take him a sandwich or give him some change or whatever. It was always an interesting thing to stand there with him in the light of Big Ben".

On the basis of the the 72cm-tall likeness of Brian on crutches crafted in the last year of his life by Amanda Ward, the full size statue of this Prince of Peace Protesters now stands outside the School of Historical Dress in Lambeth, poignantly facing the guns outside the Imperial War Museum, opposite. Mark said : "School kids and groups who go to visit the Imperial War Museum, if they bother to look across the street, they'll see Brian standing there. We'll have 'Stop Killing The Kids' written there and a link to a website". Of Brian, Mark said : "It's really important that we honour and remember this remarkable man who stood in our streets for 10 years, because he because he felt that it was wrong to kill kids". (link) (link)

In 2002, when asked about the mice that appeared in Parliament Square around dusk Brian,  pointing his finger towards the Houses of Parliament and replied :

"I don't mind them, It's the rats over there on the other side we have to look out for"

He once recalled : 

“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”

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