Brian Haw had a few weird ideas amongst the good ones in his head — in that he was not unusual. But the weird ones do not mean that we don’t all owe him thanks for the good ideas and the way he acted on them. For ten years he sat in his deckchair, inches from the trucks and taxis, staring across the road, a constant reminder for the Members of Parliament who were battling their own consciences and their own constituencies to take us to war. Every once in a while one of our representatives would catch a glimpse in the corner of their eye as they walked past a window or raced across Bridge Street from Whitehall. They knew they were being watched.
He deserves our thanks for something else, something unintended. Brian Haw made Parliament Square a place again. For five decades before Brian Haw pitched his tent, Parliament Square was not a place. The early newspaper reports on his protest, and on the attempt in 2002 to prosecute him for obstruction of the pavement, call it what it is: a traffic island.
At its narrower points, Parliament Square is four lanes of traffic. At its widest, five lanes guide us to various parts of the city. They multiply and slew off, and whisk us around the sharp corners of the square, stop start through the traffic lights, quick accelerate to be the first to join the back of the next traffic jam. Sometimes the lanes simply disappear completely and you are pushed into a clear wide expanse of cracked and patched tarmac, taxis to the left of you, articulated trucks to the right, all eyeing up that same middle lane at the next set of lights around the corner.
In 2008 I worked in an office in Fitzrovia, and so Parliament Square was on my morning roller coaster ride from South London — and what a roller coaster ride it is.
Parliament Square is a traffic island not a place. Churchill looks out from behind the now apparently permanent mess of crowd-control barriers not upon the inheritors of his seat, but down upon the brave new world that rushes past him all day and all through the night, isolating him from human contact.
When, in autumn 2002, Westminster Council attempted to prosecute Brian Haw for obstructing the pavement, the judge threw them out. Who is he obstructing? Nobody is trying to walk on this pavement, the judge pointed out, for there is no pedestrian crossing into Parliament Square, and nobody walks out across five lanes of heavy traffic.
But over time the newspaper coverage slowly changed. The references to Haw’s pitch as an isolated traffic island faded. Perhaps the authorities actively encouraged this change in perspective, recognising that the Square’s image problem was hindering their campaign against Haw. It’s difficult to work up opposition to man sat out of the way on a traffic island. Perhaps it just came naturally, as the Square slowly, occasionally, became a place. People began to make the crossing — it can be done, so long as you’re fit and fast, most easily from the south-west corner, if you know the square well and learn the cycle and timings of the lights. They crossed to talk to Brian and bring him food. Or they crossed to take a closer look at the statues, or to walk amongst the flower borders and trees. Local office workers even started using the square for lunchtime picnics on sunny days, if they could tolerate the noise and the smog.
But it was still strangled by the vast old-fashioned urban road system. When the Democracy Village camp moved in and pitched a couple of dozen tents, they were quickly jumped upon for killing the grass. But what is remarkable is that there was grass there to be killed. The great squares of the great cities of the world are not turfed. They are paved, because great squares in great cities draw great crowds, who walk and run and play and dance and march — the things that people do at the other end of Whitehall, unseen by our parliamentarians, in Trafalgar Square. Grass does not grow in the great city squares of the world, but for sixty years it grew in Parliament Square.
Parliament Square was not designed to be a great city square. Its turf and lack of crossing points indicate that its designers were deliberately designing out people. The purpose of Parliament Square was to move motor vehicles from Whitehall to Westminster Bridge, Victoria Street to the Victoria Embankment — as many as possible in as little time as possible. It was not intended that people would walk amongst the statues or picnic beside the flower beds. Not only would they disturb the hard-working politicians, they would disturb the traffic. And until Brian Haw made his camp, people knew that. Nobody ever made that crossing. The tourists probably assumed that it was illegal. This was a traffic island, and that’s what the newspapers called it.
For ten years parliament, Westminster Council, and both our former and current mayors spent an inordinate amount of time trying to evict Brian Haw from his spot on the pavement opposite the palace. They charged him under every law they could find, and when they ran out, they started passing new ones especially for him. It became an obsession, with the thought of Haw sat there, staring at them, inciting great vitriol from the members. Tom Harris (lab) of Glasgow South described Haw’s tents and banners as an eyesore, while Malcolm Rifkind (con) of Kensington went so far as to say that Haw’s camp (and the others who had followed his lead) was an international disgrace. Both of them felt that the mayor was not acting fast enough in having Haw evicted.
Finally, three weeks ago, as Brian’s protest quietly ticked over its tenth anniversary, the man himself now absent and dying, Westminster Council took the last action that was available to them — action that they had clearly spent nine years desperately hoping to avoid having to take. They began plans to install a pedestrian crossing onto the Parliament Square traffic island. The crossing would be in the south-west corner, the option closest to the camp. With tourists finally able — encouraged, even — to cross the road, protesters could finally be prosecuted for obstructing the pavement. Westminster Council did not even attempt to disguise their reasons for proposing the crossing. If it were built, and the protesters successfully evicted, how long do you think the crossing lights would last before quietly being wrapped away behind orange plastic in the night, a lonely “pedestrian diversion” sign left gathering dust on the pavement?
Now that Brian Haw is dead, Westminster might be saved ever having to install a crossing at all. The Member for Glasgow South can finally stop worrying about being watched and return to the tasks that the people of Cathcart elected him for. And Parliament Square can go back to being a non-place, a transport corridor sat between church and state. With a World Heritage Site on one side, and a heaving tube station, the river, and iconic architecture on the other. In the middle, our little international disgrace.