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Opinion

Mark Rylance: We must remember Brian Haw, ‘the most adhesive of protesters’

Mark Rylance writes exclusively for The Big Issue, launching his campaign for a statue of Brian Haw to be erected in London. The memorial would honour a tireless voice for peace in the early part of the 21st century.

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.

Mark Rylance
Mark Rylance wants you to give him one pound. Image: supplied

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.

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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.

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Among its many effects, Brian’s protest showed the sheer physical and mental toll that a life on the streets will wreak on a human being. Battling injury and illness, physical attacks in the night, personal abuse from passing drivers, and evading prosecutions and legal actions – brought by the likes of then-London Mayor Boris Johnson, Westminster Council and various MPs – Brian Haw’s personal conviction to raise awareness of human suffering, due to war, saw him remain at Westminster until just a few months before his death in 2011.

Model of the Brian Haw statue
Brian Haw model by Amanda Ward. Image: supplied

I was one of the many who would stop and give him some support or just listen as I made my way home from the theatre.

Now, 20 years on from the unforgettable Stop the War march, we are launching an appeal to have Brian’s dedication recognised by a permanent memorial statue in London. If (when!) our appeal is successful, a small figure of Brian, sculpted by artist Amanda Ward, will stand directly opposite the Imperial War Museum, creating a permanent symbol of peaceful protest. Brian’s figure will stand just outside the exclusion zone created in 2005 in an attempt by authorities to move him away from the seat of government.

Amanda made the maquette of Brian Haw in the last year of his life, a time when he was using sticks for support but was still full of energy and anger. Small and subtle, the statue will be placed discreetly on the School of Historical Dress in Lambeth, an address with an absorbing and truly relevant history as the first mental health outpatients’ department in the country, often used for the treatment of First World War soldiers suffering from shellshock.

Brian was a committed voice at Westminster for far longer than most prime ministers manage, so the permanence of a statue in his honour is entirely fitting. I put to you that we are, at our best, a nation of citizens unafraid to speak truth to power. If need be, we will fight. How much better to resolve conflict peacefully before our children must go and kill other children or die themselves in violent conflict.

Brian will stand for all of us awake to the horror of war. He will stand to remind all who visit our Imperial War Museum that we remember war, and the brave sacrifices made in the past, in the hope we can avoid it in the future and present. Let us devote our defence budgets to reducing the causes of war, poverty, injustice, climate change, and stop killing the kids!

If just a fraction of the people who took part in that march can spare a pound, we will be able to continue the protest and ensure that the figure of Brian Haw returns to London once again. We want this to be an expression of the widespread desire for peace from the people on our islands. Please join us now. One pound is all we ask.

Donate to the public appeal here

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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