It is easy to shout from the sidelines
Fingers on buzzers, your starter for 10: which public figure has just achieved the unique double distinction of having an exhibition based on his work shown at Tate Britain while in the same month being voted 2007’s Most Inspiring Political Figure by viewers of Channel 4?
The answer, of course, is that hero of Parliament Square, Brian Haw, whose protest against government policy towards Iraq has endured from June 2001 to this day, through wind, weather and official discouragement. By accumulating contributions from others who oppose the war – sentimental, ill-drawn, violent, naive but undeniably heartfelt – and then displaying them within loud-hailing distance of the House of Commons, Haw has come to represent street dissent and popular rage. When, stupidly, the Government included a provision in last year’s Serious Crime and Police Act banning unauthorised demonstration within a kilometer of the Houses of Parliament, Haw’s mini-market of protest, by now 40 meters long, was dismantled, and his heroic status was assured.
It was the idea of a scruffy, defiant citizen, standing up to the juggernaut of state power by protesting around the clock, which inspired the artist Mark Wallingford’s installation at Tate Britain. Until August, Wallingford’s careful reproduction of the original protest occupies the Tate’s central lobby, the Duveen Galleries. Classes of schoolchildren sit in front of the dodgy artwork and ill-spelt slogans, carefully copying their detail for art projects or making notes for classroom discussion on 21st-century dissent.
But, in many ways, it is the Channel 4 award which most perfectly encapsulates what the Brain Haw protest says about contemporary politics. An astonishing and depressing 54 per cent of voters voted the man with the loudhailer in Parliament Square as their Most Inspiring Political Figure, well ahead of the 18 per cent for General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the British Army who argued for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Tony Blair and David Cameron limped in at the back of the field with 8 and 6 percent respectively.
As Haw celebrates his double triumph with an extra cup of tea from his thermos (somehow champagne seems unlikely to be his style), it is worth reflecting on this gloomy little insight into contemporary cynicism. Megaphone Man is now the hero; the trimming, compromising politicians in the House of Commons are the villains. It is protest which inspired the Channel 4 voters, not the boring, nuts-and-bolts business of government or of opposition. Passion, rather than thought, analysis or policy, was what mattered.
Doubtless those who voted for Haw would argue that he was brave but, in politics, those who show true courage are those who take decisions, who act, rather than shouting through a loud-hailer. Dissent may be uncomfortable in an intolerant age, but it is also relatively easy to protest. What is truly difficult, requiring brains as well as emotion, is working within politics, analysing a problem, taking steps to solve it, and then being prepared to take the consequences.
Brian Haw sees no place for analysis. He is a one-issue man. He believes what the 600 or so slogans in his protest say – “You Lie, Kids Die!”, “Stop Killing Our Kids!”, “Bush and Blair, Babykillers!”, “Bliar!” – and he is prepared to go on shouting it as loud as he can for as long as it takes.
This makes a good news soundbite, but becomes embarrassing when subjected to any kind of scrutiny. Haw appeared recently in a shockingly compelling TV documentary about the prophet and former son of God, David Icke, who visited Parliament Square to meet the protester. Just as Icke was about to discuss whether the reptilian humanoids within the Global Elite run by extraterrestrials from the planet Draco represent a threat to freedom of speech, Haw spotted a ministerial car driving past. He sprinted to the edge of the pavement, ringing a bell and screaming through his loud-hailer, “Unclean! Unclean!” Briefly, he actually made David Icke seem normal.
It is not entirely a joke when a vocal, one-issue protester is celebrated on one of the main TV channels as a political role-model. If people, like the Channel 4 voters (and there are many who think like them) really believe that all politicians are the same, and that voting for them is now a waste of time, they are not arguing against cynicism, but democracy.
As a sideshow, loud-hailer politics is fine, even important, but when it becomes the main attraction, and the shouter is more admired than the elected representatives who are making policy, then it leads eventually towards a sort of fascism.