After a year full of frustrations and barely believable troubles, which, sadly, look set to continue in 2023, I am beginning to lose count of the number of times I’ve heard, from friends, colleagues or across social media, that we should be taking to the streets. Given the obvious anger and frustration at the state of our nation, its economy and public services, not to mention the current lack or consideration for NHS nurses, so many people are finding it hard to believe that our streets are not the scene of constant protest. Whenever this subject arises, thoughts of Brian Haw are inevitably not far behind. For those who may not know the name, you will almost certainly know the figure.
In June 2001, one of the most visible, influential and determined peace campaigners of our times set up camp on the grass and then the pavement directly outside opposite the Houses of Parliament. Initially motivated by the war in Iraq and UK and US foreign policy, Brian Haw became a noisy 24-hour presence at Parliament Square in Westminster. His Parliament Square Peace Campaign became an unavoidable accompaniment for MPs as they made their way to and from their place of work.
For 10 years, Brian Haw proved to be the most adhesive of protesters. Gripped by a compulsion to campaign for peace, Brian’s actions were hugely influential, encouraging many others to camp and protest at Westminster, bringing powerful, argumentative voices to the heart of UK politics and the horrors of war into focus for politicians, citizens and media here and across the world.
From the beginning, his protest was fed, literally, by the generosity of supporters who brought him sustenance and expanded the peace camp across Parliament Square grass. In 2003, the mood of protest led to the Stop the War coalition’s march through London against the Iraq war, which brought two million people to the city’s streets. I had been involved in many peace initiatives before – Peace Direct, Peace One Day, The Peace Pledge Union – but this march by citizens from all over the UK changed everything for me and inspired campaigners for peace all over the world.
Brian became a figurehead of determination and sanity for his perseverance in proclaiming that we as a nation should “Stop killing kids!” Our subsidised arms trade and foreign policy of violent resolution of conflict is certainly murdering children among the 90 per cent of civilian casualties on international battle fields. While I rode my bicycle by this fact, I would see him standing in its awful truth 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for a decade.