Peace campaigner Brian Haw stood against the establishment yet may now join its ranks as a statue in Parliament Square
As inscriptions on statues go, the legend for the proposed bronze showing the likeness of Brian Haw, the peace campaigner who camped outside Parliament Square for about a decade, is pretty uncompromising. “A giant among men: the establishment said he was mad: yet for 10 years in all weathers he defied parliament and saw that with our wars we were destroying and maiming generations of children with appalling weapons causing grotesque birth defects.”
It’s that second clause that makes it. The establishment said he was mad, and here he is, immortalised in the way that only members of the establishment ever are. Sculptor Amanda Ward’s proposed monument to Haw, based on a maquette already on the site, would stand permanently on Parliament Square, in the spot where he had survived successive legal challenges to his presence there. Look around the square and you see the sort of people who get their place in the pantheon. Disraeli, Peel, Canning, Palmerston; South African segregationalist Jan Smuts; and Churchill, of course, in a looming, lurching pose, defaced via a strategically placed turf mohican at a demonstration in 2001.
In recent years Haw would have seen from his encampment new statues being unveiled. A hilarious cape-flying version of Lloyd George, PM during the first world war – a man fully aware of but unwilling to stop its pointless mechanised slaughter. And Nelson Mandela, once controversial as a “terrorist” given a bronze bust by the GLC in the mid-80s, by 2007 sainted and harmless. Haw himself was made into an artwork in a less literal form when his camp was recreated in the Tate by Mark Wallinger – and regardless of the efficacy of this as political art, it was pointedly placed within the 1km exclusion area for protest that had been imposed in response to Haw’s actual camp. In the unlikely event that Haw’s statue is permanently erected, it would raise new questions. Would the frequently arrested but never moved camp that continues on the site feel able to leave? If that happened, would the immortalisation of protest replace protest itself?
It is questions like the latter that make statues of anti-establishment figures particularly difficult, in what is a classically establishment form of art. Statues are almost invariably in tribute to those who have won their political battles, or at least to figures whose saintliness renders them effectively apolitical. This leads to the strange side-effect that very few people pay any attention to the statues that actually are there; by looking solely at statues in the capital you might assume the empire never ended. Fourth plinth aside, few could name any of the sundry notables who occupy Trafalgar Square. The fact that two of them are Charles Napier and Henry Havelock, ruthless subjugators of India, does not cause much concern. When Ken Livingstone proposed removing them it was because they were “not relevant”, not because they were drenched in blood.
There are plans to remove the statues from George Square, Glasgow, not so much, it would seem, for their political resonance, but to make it a “21st century square”, whatever that means. This is particularly sad, as George Square features a statue of Robert Burns, for once a revolutionary rather than a conservative. Britain has a tiny handful of statues and monuments to figures of the left. Writers or artists – Burns, Chaplin, Wilde, Byron – can get away with it, directly political figures less so. Realistic, monumental bronze statues are seen, in many respects rightly, as the enemy’s form. The few statues that exist help explain why. A fittingly paternalist statue of Robert Owen stands near the Co-Operative movement’s HQ in Manchester, with a child who he is evidently educating in the values of co-operation next to him. There are homely statues of Harold Wilson in Huyton and Huddersfield, an unassuming Attlee stands outside Limehouse Town Hall, and Labour’s founder Keir Hardie has a bust outside Cumnock Town Hall, Ayrshire. All are realist bronzes hardly distinguishable at a glance from those of their political opponents. They had become the establishment so much that they even looked alike.
Sometimes the response has been to import socialist statues. To save itself the trouble of commissioning a sculptor, Manchester once made arrangements to borrow a statue of adoptive Mancunian Friedrich Engels from its twin city of St Petersburg, only for the latter to find it didn’t have any Engelses.
Monuments to anyone further left can be easily controversial. Briefly, another import, a mass-produced Soviet bust of Lenin, was put into a sculptural monument in Clerkenwell, London, designed by the architect Berthold Lubetkin (Vladimir Ilyich briefly lived nearby). After it was repeatedly vandalised, Lubetkin buried it under a housing scheme he had designed nearby. Itself intended to be named after Lenin, it was swiftly renamed – with only two letters changed – to Bevin Court, after the cold war foreign secretary. But the most – probably only – truly moving monument to a socialist in the UK is to Aneurin Bevan, fittingly, given that the NHS is one of the few lasting legacies of the left in Britain. There is a dull, pigeon faeces-coated bronze in Cardiff, but much more powerful are the “Bevan stones” in Sirhowy Valley.
Placed on a hill, these megaliths mark the spot where he would speak to constituents, in between Ebbw Vale, Tredegar and Rhymney. Rather than an inducement to genuflection, they invite contemplation of the post-industrial landscape, of the politics that began here and transformed the rest of the country. They recognise that an egalitarian politics needs a different kind of monument.