WHEN in Westminster, I always keep a lookout for Brian Haw, the self-described peace protester who has been camping in Parliament Square for almost 10 years.
It was a bit of a shock to be told he is suffering from lung cancer and receiving treatment in Germany, although a couple of his supporters keep his tattered and weather beaten standards flying.
Let’s hope he recovers soon.
To add to Haw’s troubles, London Mayor Boris Johnson yesterday succeeded in a High Court battle to evict him from his spot outside the Palace of Westminster. Haw has until March 28 to appeal against the decision. Haw has been there so long, fruitlessly bellowing into his megaphone amid the constant roar of traffic, that he has almost become part of the furniture.
In fact, despite his claim to be a rebel, he is as much a member of the establishment as the MPs and civil servants he harangues.
He has featured in two documentaries, dozens of adoring profiles in left wing newspapers, and won the admiration of veteran Left winger Tony Benn and Radio 4’s favourite comedian/activist Mark Thomas. The beatification of Saint Brian by the liberal left establishment reached its apotheosis in 2007 when the trendy artist Mark Wallinger won the Turner Prize for a recreation of Haw’s peace camp displayed at Tate Britain.
How much more “estabishment” can you get?
So why hasn’t he stood for Parliament so he can make his points in the Chamber of the House of Commons instead of on the pavement outside? Well, he has, in 2005, but he attracted only 298 votes – 0.8 per cent of the vote.
Given all this attention you would be forgiven for thinking that Haw has something original or interesting to say – but I’m afraid he hasn’t. His arguments are much the same as you would find in any copy of the Socialist Worker, enlivened by a hotchpotch of paranoid conspiracy theories.
The megaphone he uses is a perfect symbol for his style of debate; because he not only wants his own voice heard, he attempts to drown out other opinions too.
Take for example last year when he was joined by dozens of protesters in a so-called Democracy Village on Parliament Square.
Far from being delighted that activists had decided to enlist in his protest, Haw was outraged that others were stealing the limelight from him. He accused his fellow peace campers of getting drunk, taking drugs and committing acts of violence – all with some justification. Hilariously, he hinted that the Democracy Village was all part of a sinister government plot to discredit him.
When the police and bailiffs moved in to evict the other protesters, Haw was given special dispensation to remain.
I’m a firm defender of free speech, but I don’t understand why Haw has been until now afforded special privileges denied to other ordinary folk. Surely we allow all-comers to camp out in Parliament Square or we get rid of the lot of them.
Politicians often complain that the public, and in particular young people, have little interest in politics.
It is a fair point, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for ordinary voters to see our democracy at work.
For example, each spring I organise a trip to the Houses of Parliament for a group of journalism students, and over time tickets to get into the public gallery of the Commons have become almost as rare as hen’s teeth. This year, after 22 students wrote to their MPs asking for passes to watch Prime Minister’s Questions, we received a total of six tickets.
I understand the need for tight security, but we should be careful not to restrict the rights of voters to observe their elected representatives at work.