The Liberator of Parliament Square

© 2006 Peter Marshall.
Brian Haw – Liberator of Parliament Square  (1949-2011)

I suppose as someone who has long felt that the main qualifications for being a Conservative MP were to be ignorant and opinionated I should have felt vindicated at the tasteless blatherings of one such lunatic on Radio 4 on the morning following the announcement of Brian Haw’s death.

Instead I was sickened, although a contribution from Bruce Kent about Brian did a lot to restore my faith in humanity. But what really got up my nose was the Tory twit going on about how Parliament Square should be for everyone to make use of and not just for one person to make a protest.

I wonder if he had ever actually set foot in Parliament Square or does he arrive at the House of Commons blindfolded in a limousine?  Certainly he had absolutely no grasp of what has been happening on the ground there over the last ten or so years.

© 2006, Peter Marshall
Police hand out SOCPA Section 132 Notices to bystanders and press in Parliament Square warning them they are liable to arrest if they remain

One of Brian’s great achievements has been the liberation of Parliament Square. Before his protest started the square was a black hole in the centre of our capital, surrounded on all sides by traffic with no pedestrian crossings from the surrounding streets which were and are still thronged by tourists. Ten years ago it was rare to see anyone at all making there way to what was essentially a large traffic island. Most of the tourists on its periphery probably thought it was a banned area, and the authorities clearly intended it to be what the police like to call a ‘sterile zone‘.

Tourists, already fazed by London’s traffic coming at them on the wrong side of the road, stood little chance of making it to the middle of the square, and even few Londoners chanced the risky and rather unpredictable crossing.

© 2006, Peter Marshall

Over the 10 years of his occupation, Brian and his friends and later other protesters have effected a great transformation – one that Ken Livingstone as Mayor failed to do – in opening up the square to people. Many came to see Brian, others to mount their own protests and yet more to sit and picnic on the grass – before Mayor Boris – for reasons political under a minor horticultural smokescreen – fenced it off.

Thanks largely to Brian, we’ve seen a remarkable change in London and a movement of the centre of political protest in the capital, a movement away from Trafalgar Square down Whitehall to Parliament Square, where it is a little harder for it to go unnoticed by both parliament and the media.

Brian and the other protests in the square became a tourist attraction, with group leaders umbrellas raised bringing their charges across the traffic lights and it was very much an advertisement for British democracy – though given the repeated attempts by politicians to get rid of him rather an unmerited one. Truly it was more an index of Brian’s doggedness, as well as the support he received from many, including the occasional judge or magistrate who remembered the freedoms our law is supposed to protect – if unfortunately it seldom does when the obviously more important vested interests of the rich and powerful are involved.

And as for Speaker’s Corner, mentioned by that Tory ignoramus, it was long ago abandoned to religious bigots and eccentrics, a minor tourist attraction rather than a site with any meaningful politics, and a happy hunting ground for photographers of the meaningless gesture.

© 2011, Peter Marshall
Barbara Tucker, April 2011

But although Brian’s example may have liberated Parliament Square, the battle is still taking place to take it away from the people and keep it back under tight wraps. We need to support those who are continuing to protest there, in particular Babs, Barbara Tucker, who has been with Brian there for so long and is continuing his battle. Read more on where there is also a link to the “tastless threat” on the Today programme.

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