| Two Greenpeace demonstrators protest beneath the clockface of the Big Ben in central London. (Reuters)
London, March 20: Big Ben, London’s most famous tourist landmark, struck an anti-war note today when two protesters from Greenpeace scaled up its clockface in very windy conditions and unfurled a banner telling Tony Blair that it was “Time for Truth”.
The men belonged to Greenpeace which named them as brothers, Harry and Simon Westaway, aged 26 and 24 respectively, from Lewes in Sussex.
Their stunt at the mother of parliaments was part of demonstrations to mark the first anniversary of the war against Iraq. In place of the nearly two million who filled the streets of London a year ago, this time the numbers were fewer than the 100,000 forecast by the Anti-War Coalition.
After six hours, the two brothers were forced down by the windy conditions and arrested by police, who will now have to deal with the embarrassment of having to explain how security at the closely guarded Palace of Westminster was breached without any problems, it seems. At 6.15 am, the two men jumped over a perimetre fence followed by an internal one and then used the climbing gear they had brought to scale up the 316 feet St Stephen’s Tower which houses the much loved Big Ben.
This being a very British protest, Greenpeace then informed police that this was a publicity stunt and not a terrorist attack. As the men enjoyed their brief period of fame, Steven Tindale of Greenpeace, said: “They are there to send a clear message to Tony Blair to come clean about the reasons for the war in Iraq.
“So far all we’ve had are half-truths, evasions and sometimes downright lies. They are not planning on coming down any time soon. They’re hoping to stay up there for most of the day.” But as the men began their descent, he added: “They are coming down. It is very windy up there and they feel they have made their point.”
Harry Westaway also confirmed in a statement: “We have achieved what we wanted. It’s wet and windy but it’s worth it. It’s about time Tony Blair told us the truth.”
In some senses, the men do not really have to make their point. It would be fair to say that much of Britain remains unconvinced by Blair’s reasons for joining President Bush in a war against Saddam Hussein. Unlike Bush, Blair specifically said that immediate military action was necessary because Saddam could use his weapons of mass destruction against western targets. Since no WMDs have been found, even those people in Britain who were neutral now say the war was not justified.
However, today’s Big Ben protest or the demonstrations will be only a minor irritation to Blair, who remains reasonably confident of winning a third term for Labour at the next election. He has survived several close votes in parliament, cleared by the Hutton inquiry into the death of the weapons scientist Dr David Kelly and makes it clear at every opportunity that he was right to go to war whatever else others might think.
Police pointed out today that the two climbers were not able to get inside the Palace of Westminster. Had they thought the men were terrorists, their actions would be very different.
Nevertheless, a defence and security analyst, Humphrey Cram Ewing, suggested that the two protesters may have been assisted “from the inside” by a sympathiser.
Cram Ewing, an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute, said: “This represents an immense security risk — Big Ben is a high profile target which you would expect terrorists to go for. It is immensely worrying that two people can get up Big Ben to hang a banner.”
Some of the language used would have a familiar ring to those who had to deal with the aftermath of the attack on parliament in New Delhi. For example, one source said that there was “an intense investigation ongoing now into the exact circumstances as to how a relatively small group of unarmed protesters could manage to scale two fences at the heart of British democracy at a time of an intense security alert”.