Death of a pacifist

Brian Haw (born 1949) was a near contemporary of Tony Blair (born 1953). Yet while both sprang from Christian backgrounds, what these two Britons have stood for could hardly have been more diametrically opposed.

By Neil Berry (BRITAIN)

Published: Tue 28 Jun 2011, 9:08 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:50 AM

For whereas Blair has expended vast efforts in waging war, Haw, who died on June 18, at the age of 62, poured all his energies into trying to stop it.

Until compelled to seek treatment for lung cancer earlier this year, Haw occupied a tent on London’s Parliament Square. Originally outraged by UN sanctions against Iraq, this former carpenter maintained an unremitting peace vigil there from 2001 that established him as the most conspicuous British pacifist of his day. Wearing a battered hat studded with badges bearing slogans such as ‘Keep My Muslim Neighbours Safe’, he was part of the furniture of a peace camp outside the Houses of Parliament that could easily be mistaken for a shanty town.

Haw’s makeshift home was decried by politicians as an eyesore that degraded the British capital. But in contrast to Britain’s self-regarding elected representatives, he was never party to the flouting of international law and the endorsement of military action that has wrought untold devastation; nor did he plunder the public purse in the manner of expenses-embezzling British MPs. However ill-kempt, he conducted himself with honour, single-mindedly bearing witness to what he believed was a great wrong: his country’s participation in the wanton killing of vast numbers of innocent men, women and children, most of them Muslims.

In many ways, Haw was the guilty conscience of Britain’s parliament, though he could equally be described as the guilty conscience of the great mass of British people. The artist Mark Wallinger, who recreated Haw’s peace camp as a prize-winning exhibition at London’s Tate Gallery, remarked that his moral stance underlined the supine acquiescence of his fellow Britons. For after a million or more of them gathered in London to demonstrate against the Iraq war in March 2003, it was as if they simply resigned themselves to defeat, despite their abiding dismay at what was being done in their name.

Haw believed that if the mass anti-war protest had been sustained, Britain would never have joined the United States in the invasion of an Arab country that ranks among the most ignominious episodes in British history. Nothing if not bloody-minded, he carried on his peace campaign, the embattled, weather-beaten figurehead of a small band of anti-war activists whom the media had no trouble in portraying as cranks and ne’er-do-wells. Keeping his vigil in fair weather and foul (he suffered endless harassment, grew estranged from his family and wrecked his health), Haw can truly be said to have martyred himself for his principles. In the process, he became yet another casualty of what have been called ‘Blair’s wars’.

While Haw lay dying in a Berlin hospital, the sun-tanned, air miles-devouring former British prime minister was touring Britain’s television studios to promote the paperback edition of his memoirs, ‘The Journey’. Perhaps not surprisingly, neither the first nor the second edition of the book makes the smallest reference to Haw, though during his years in office Blair can hardly have been unaware of his accuser’s remorseless presence but a stone’s throw from the parliament building over which he long presided.

Indeed, notwithstanding the bomb-proof glass of his official car, he must often have heard Haw haranguing him as he was driven in and out of the House of Commons. “45 minutes, Mr Bliar”, Haw used to yell through a megaphone, reminding the prime minister of his reputation as a bare-faced deceiver who sponsored the baseless claim that Saddam Hussein could deploy weapons of mass destruction against British people at terrifyingly short notice.

It might be different if there were the least evidence that the world has become a better place thanks to Blair’s unshakeable faith in force; it might even, did such evidence exist, be easier to take a more sympathetic view of the realpolitik and mendacity of which he has been so notorious an exponent. Yet the plain fact is that his actions have helped to make the world even more bitterly divided, even more combustible, than it was before. It says not a little about the character of his purportedly humanitarian mission that, wherever he goes, the most elaborate and costly security arrangements have to be made on Blair’s behalf, and will continue to have to be made for the rest of his days.

Brian Haw believed in giving peace a chance. It is by no means flippant to say that Tony Blair believes precisely the contrary. ‘Give War a Chance’: what more fitting epitaph could there be for this most militant of British leaders?

Neil Berry is a London-based commentator

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