It's good to be a pain

Paul Evans on why ruffling feathers is a crucial element of political action

Brian Haw is irritating. He is an annoyance to the public, which has to endure his endless anti-war megaphone broadcasts. He is annoying to the courts and police, who waste endless hours dealing with him. He is annoying to many on his own side, who despair at the image his ragged peace camp projects. He is surly and pig-headed, and he recently chided an Amnesty International official who had posited that there are differences between the state of civil freedoms in the UK and in Zimbabwe. It is this combination of martyrdom, silly rhetoric and (admittedly not always unfounded) paranoia that makes people who actually agree with him flinch.

Can there be any merit in presenting a cause abrasively? The public affairs consultants who orchestrate even apparently grass-roots campaigns today would probably suggest not. But immediately garnering sympathy is not the aim of every movement. In 1970s Italy, fascist groups used the "strategy of tension" in an attempt to bring about change in the public mood through acts of false-flag terrorism. If emotional stress and tension can be employed as tools for advancing movements, why not irritation?

History suggests that while time solidifies our resentment against those like the neo-fascists, who use fear, it will gently deaden the raw exasperation that the likes of Haw provoke.

When Emily Wilding Davison died by hurling herself in front of the king's horse at the 1913 Derby, she annoyed a lot of people. It is easy to imagine suffragette sympathisers cursing her stupidity, knowing that the established press (the New Statesman had launched only two months previously) would use her sacrifice to paint women as irrational, passionate creatures who could not be trusted with the vote.

Think also of Gandhi. Many admire his espousal of non-violent resistance (perhaps not the Jews of Germany, whom he urged in 1938 to accept their fate, because "suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy"), but he was undoubtedly a supremely conceited being. That satisfied smile, now widely accepted as indicating serenity, must surely have grated even on his devoted followers at times.

It is precisely the type of irritation that Haw provokes which is valuable - the kind which arises from unreasonable stubbornness. By permanently straining authority's tolerance, he has done something that should be celebrated by all those who value personal liberty.

And through his almost unthinkingly dogged resistance to attempts at removing him from outside parliament, he has brought well-earned embarrassment on the government, and in the process exposed its problems with drafting coherent and effective legislation.

Annoying people will always be remembered as prominent in the march of progress, even if they appear to be causing damage at the time. They are distinctive characters, and while the potency of our gut reactions to them will fade, the causes they stood for will not. Posterity may yet treat Mr Haw as an icon of noble principle.

Paul Evans is a freelance journalist, and formerly worked for an MP. He lives in London, but maintains his Somerset roots by drinking cider.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer