May 23rd, 2006 should be a date etched on our collective memory. Yesterday marked the true beginning of authoritarianism in this country and the end of British democracy.
Brian Haw moved onto Parliament Square five years ago, motivated by the same revulsion with violence that inspired over a million people to march through London. His is a life dedicated to compassion and understanding. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that his neighbours in the House of Commons have taken such an intense dislike to him. Brian’s presence is familiar to any Londoner. Over the past half-decade he has amassed a startling array of photographs, banners, placards and cuttings. They are shocking, graphic and deeply disturbing – and this is precisely why they are so vital. Brian’s extraordinary actions were, and are, an excruciating reminder to those across the road of the consequences of their decisions.
Just over ten days ago, Brian was told by police that he would be forced to leave the Square under the Serious Organised Crime and Policing Act (SOCPA). Something of a misnomer, you might think – Brian and his supporters are many things, but they are certainly not serious organised criminals. In fact, the SOCPA legislation was written to limit free speech within a kilometre of Westminster. Under Section 132 of this document, anybody wanting to stage a demonstration must now receive written authorisation from the police, who can impose a number of restrictions, including a limit on the number of attendees, its length, the number of placards, the time and location of the demonstration and even how much noise the participants may make. The cases of some of those who have been found to be in breach of the legislation are well documented, in particular that of Maya Evans, the first to be convicted, for reading out the names of dead Iraqis outside Downing Street.
Initially the government failed to prevent Brian demonstrating under the legislation. It was ruled that, as the demonstration had begun before SOCPA came into force, Brian should effectively be given special dispensation to remain. However the government subsequently appealed and the decision was reversed, setting a precedent that could conceivably lead to other retrospective prosecutions. Since then Brian has been subjected to a campaign of police harassment involving multiple case officers, early morning disturbances and repeated insistence on attempting to serve summons to Brian and not his solicitor.
This campaign culminated at 2:30 yesterday morning, when fifty officers from across London arrived to dismantle the display. A large container lorry was parked in the road and the banners were taken down one by one. A number of supporters have been staying on Parliament Square since it became clear the police were going to act, and several were arrested – one for obstructing the highways, although this charge was soon dropped, presumably when it was pointed out that it was in fact the police’s lorry that was causing the obstruction. Along with the banners, most of Brian’s personal possessions were also taken. He has vowed to stay, and fast, until his display is returned. “It looks like I’m going to die in this place”, he said yesterday.
Two days ago Brian Haw’s demonstration was forty feet long. Evidence of genocide covered one side of Parliament Square. The conditions imposed by the police now state that thirty supporters can be in the Square at one time – but that they must stay within a three metre cordon. Conversely, a demonstration on the Square today, in support of ‘an English Parliament’, was subject to no such space conditions. This is the reality of SOCPA: petty fights picked by cowards in uniforms.
The right to protest is one of the most fundamental tenets of a civilised democracy. Ours now appears to be a society of half-truths and backhand deals, a society in which one can no longer expect the state to protect their rights, and in which each and every logically argued, apparently justified move to relieve us of our rights is accepted with a shrug. The lack of press coverage of this week’s appalling events has been starkly illustrative of the monumental moral shortcomings of our pathetic, snivelling excuse for a press. I had at least held out hope for the Independent, only for them to be dashed on the rocks of a hundred-word cop-out neatly filed under ‘Crime’.
SOCPA smacks of desperation. The Prime Minister has revealed himself to be as weak as many suspected – it is only a deeply insecure man who would go to such lengths to prevent criticism. Blair believes he can shove his fingers in his ears and it will all go away, but Brian Haw and his supporters will not let that happen. As well as being a defining characteristic of democracy, the right to dissent is becoming increasingly vital for contemporary reasons. We are living under the most autocratic government to have ruled this country in living memory. Our Prime Minister is directly responsible for, and every aye-voting MP is complicit in, the greatest act of unprovoked aggression this century. Blair has committed genocide, and as such it is our duty, as people of morality, to take every measure we can to remove him. SOCPA is a direct response to the tangible re-awakening of this country’s political spirit, hot on the heels of 2005’s glorification of terrorism legislation, which criminalized support for non-violent organisations. Similarly the introduction of ASBOs has negated our long-held right to trial by jury and has excused the criminalisation of youth. The importance of the implications of these three pieces of legislation cannot be overstated. It is now illegal to support a group whose opinions are uncomfortable for the government of the day. It is now illegal to make your voice heard freely outside the seat of British government. It is now illegal to breach the terms of an order handed to you by a jury-less court.
It seems hackneyed to cite Orwell in such circumstances, but there are few parallels which ring as true. Only the great author could possibly have envisaged the current state of affairs. Brian Haw’s actions are both a catharsis of rage and a quiet lament for what we have become. We live in an enlightened time. We can look, for example, at the repression suffered in Uzbekistan, in China, in Burma, and we can think how lucky we are. But never forget, if these apparently small chips continue to be removed from the façade of freedom in this country, then the day will eventually come when there is nothing left. If we continue to shrug in acceptance, that day will come within our lifetime.