First published online by Oliver Laughland and Emine Saner.
“Is that him in the tie? I’ll go and applaud him,” says a woman sitting yesterday in the waiting area of Haringey magistrates court in north London. People clap as David Lawley-Wakelin, dressed in a black corduroy jacket, appears. Days earlier, at a demonstration, he had been described as “a hero of the anti-war movement”. His supporters – around 30 of them – who turned up at 9am on Friday seem to agree. Many repeatedly thank him for what he did on 28 May this year, when he burst into court 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice, where Tony Blair was giving evidence to the Leveson inquiry, and accused the former prime minister of being a war criminal.
We file in, filling all 27 seats in the public gallery; a further group outside have erected an anti-war banner and hold placards. Since Lawley-Wakelin is accused of being guilty of an offence under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, of causing harassment, alarm or distress, James Mason, his barrister, makes much of how his client is cordial and charming – the “excuse me” he uttered as he started his protest, the co-operation with the police afterwards – and that this case is like “a sledgehammer to crack a very polite and modest nut”.
A television news report featuring CCTV footage of the incident is played several times. Lawley-Wakelin gives the slightest hint of a smile when it gets to the part where he is bundled back out of the door behind Lord Leveson’s desk, shouting “that man [Blair] is a war criminal”. The district judge goes off to consider his decision; Lawley-Wakelin and his supporters go off for a pub lunch.
We first meet days before his court appearance at a hotel near King’s Cross. Later, we’ll go on to join a protest led by the Stop the War campaign group outside University College London, where Blair is thought to be speaking at a conference at the Institute of Security and Resilience Studies, which is affiliated to UCL (he isn’t here, it soon turns out; he is at another building in London Bridge). He said he wasn’t nervous about appearing before a magistrate. “When you go to court, usually you’re being taken to court for something where there’s a good chance you’re guilty, and you’re going along and grovelling. I’m going along knowing I’m in the right.”
On that day in May, Lawley-Wakelin thought he would try to get into the room where the Leveson inquiry was taking place. He went in round the back and managed to walk unhindered through a series of corridors and unlocked doors. He turned back, he says, before he got to the courtroom’s door – the one used by Lord Leveson – went to the loo and called his mother. “I asked if I should do it and she said, ‘You won’t get another chance, so go ahead.’ So I went for it.” He says he had previously tried to get into the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, “but the security was much tighter. I was close.”
Lawley-Wakelin, a film-maker and father of two, says he wasn’t particularly political before going on the march against the Iraq war in 2003, but now feels protesting against the war is a duty. “My generation has got away scot-free – we’re far too interested in the latest car or phone, we don’t have any understanding of what real hardship due to war is like. We’re not concerned about the future of the planet enough for our children. It’s time our generation stood up and did something for our kids.”
We leave the hotel and walk in the crisp November sunshine to UCL, where between 100 and 150 people of all ages have gathered, with banners and drums and “Bliar” placards. “You do see the same faces on these things,” says Lawley-Wakelin. What keeps them doing it? Chris Holden, a retired paintings conservator who now brings his own artwork to most anti-war demos, says he is passionately committed to the cause, but adds, “you build up relationships with the people you are working with”.
Nicholas Wood, an architect and secretary of the Blair War Crimes Foundation campaign group, who attends both the protest outside UCL and shows up in support of Lawley-Wakelin outside the magistrates court, admits “it has taken up a lot of my energy”. Why does he still do it, year after year? “I have terrible images in my head of things that have happened in Falluja.” Doesn’t it get disheartening when the number of people attending protests dwindles? “Yes, it does, really,” he says. “But then something happens, like Desmond Tutu saying what he did.” He is referring to the archbishop’s decision, at the end of August, to pull out of a summit he was due to appear at with Blair, later writing in the Observer: “The immorality of the United States and Great Britain’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, premised on the lie that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, has destabilised and polarised the world to a greater extent than any other conflict in history.” It had lent the campaign – led by a small but dedicated number – new weight that many activists are describing as a turning point.
Less than a week after Lawley-Wakelin made his appearance from behind the curtain at the Leveson inquiry, another man approached Blair – this time as he delivered a lecture on faith and globalisation at Hong Kong University. Tom Grundy, 29, a Briton who lives in Hong Kong, spent the previous weekend deciding whether or not to go through with his plan to attempt a citizen’s arrest on Blair. After an email exchange with George Monbiot, the Guardian columnist and founder of the Arrest Blair website, which encourages people to stage a citizen’s arrest on the former prime minister, he decided to do it. The location was an intimate lecture theatre, and as Blair began to speak, Grundy stood up, handed a business card to a local journalist sitting next to him and moved calmly towards the lectern.
“I didn’t know until the last minute whether I’d pull it off,” he says, speaking from Hong Kong, where he has lived for the past seven years. “I’d gone over it enough in my head, [but] it was still nerve-racking.” He clutched the speech he had prepared and began reading: “You misled the British people, you caused the deaths of a 100,000 people … you can’t talk about faith when you’ve set back religious tolerance decades.”
People started to applaud before Grundy was ushered away by security staff. A smiling Blair, standing on the stage, said, “You’ve made your point,” then to the crowd: “And that’s democracy for you.”
“It’s that dusting it off which is typical of how Blair and Bush dealt with any dissent during the Bush-Blair era,” says Grundy. One of the organisers can be heard remarking to Blair that he must be used to this kind of confrontation. “Actually, I am used to it,” came the reply.
Grundy’s was the fourth attempt to be recognised and rewarded by Monbiot’s campaign, which was launched in January 2010. It wants to arrest the former prime minister – or rather to get arrest attempts publicised – for what Monbiot and others describe as Blair’s crime of aggression, which is responsible, so it is argued, for the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis following an illegal invasion in 2003. “The true purpose is to ensure that this issue does not lie,” says Monbiot. “I set this up with the overwhelming sense that there was one rule for the powerful and one rule for the weak.”
The campaign offers a cash reward for arrest attempts – it has to be peaceful, and must be reported by the mainstream media to qualify – and has so far paid out around £10,000 to the four claimants from a pot of more than £18,000 (legitimate attempts are awarded a quarter of whatever is in the account at the time; all four have given their rewards to charity). The site is driven by well-wishers donating small amounts, but within days of launching, PayPal, the online payment system, withdrew its services, and now the campaign is, rather quaintly, forced to take money through cheques in the post.
On 29 January 2010, just a few days after the website was launched, Grace McCann, a 35-year-old charity worker, impulsively slipped into the Queen Elizabeth conference hall in Westminster before Blair was due to give evidence at the Chilcot inquiry. Striding confidently past the heavy police presence, she burst through the double doors into the foyer and called for Blair’s arrest. He wasn’t even in the room, but McCann was bundled out by the police all the same.
Two months later, David Cronin, a journalist, got much closer. He placed his hand on Blair’s shoulder and attempted an arrest as his entourage streamed past on a visit to the European parliament. They exchanged a split-second glance before Cronin, too, was bundled away. “It almost felt like I was floating – a bit of a natural high, I suppose.” Later that year, Kate O’Sullivan, now a 26-year-old international law graduate, approached Blair at a signing of his autobiography in a bookshop in Dublin. There had been talk of an arrest attempt among local activists, she says, but she kept her intentions to herself. The evening before Blair was due to arrive, she watched footage of the first night of Baghdad’s bombardment, when “shock and awe” lit the night sky, and her heart was set.
The next day, O’Sullivan queued up and underwent a series of security checks – she passed through a metal detector, was frisked a number of times, purchased a copy of A Journey, Blair’s book, climbed the stairs to the third floor, passed a horde of security personnel, and was eventually ushered in front of him, alone.
“Tony Blair,” she said, “I am making a citizen’s arrest for your war crimes.” Blair, she says, simply smiled and continued signing her book. “They [the security staff] immediately grabbed me, pulling me away, restraining my arms, telling me to shut up as I shouted breaches of the Geneva Convention I believed he had committed.” She was held for about half an hour, and was released without charge.
It’s fair to say that none of those attempting an arrest have any realistic expectations of single-handedly bringing Blair to the Hague. The hope is that the individual actions create a sense of fear and keep the media interested at the same time: “He [Blair] needs to feel that wherever he goes it’ll happen,” says Grundy, “The tide is already turning, and the point becomes irresistible if it’s kept in the media. We’re constantly starting debate about the issue, and eventually it will have to be addressed.”
The campaign group Stop the War is also involved in the cat-and-mouse game with Blair, following his movements and staging protests wherever he is due to appear. The pressure appears to work. In September 2010, both his book signing at Waterstone’s in central London, and launch party at the Tate Modern, were cancelled after protests were planned. Keeping tabs on Blair’s public appearances are tricky, say campaigners. His diary is closely guarded, and despite their relatively large network, many of his appearances escape unnoticed – nobody turned up to arrest him at a Chinese restaurant in Hull last week, where Blair was supporting John Prescott’s bid to become Humberside’s police and crime commissioner.
John Rentoul, Blair biographer and longtime supporter of the ex-PM, concedes the tactics are taking their toll: “I know he hates it. It’s wounding for someone who was so popular and successful at persuading people to vote for him to find that he’s so disliked by such a large minority of people. It must be extremely frustrating for him to be unable to move around his own country freely, given that, on a fair and balanced reading of his record, he was quite a successful prime minister.”
But, so Rentoul argues, the roots of this popular dissent grew from Blair’s own media tactics: “He has always shown an unusual degree of self-control and has had to deal with this kind of hostility for a long time now. As prime minister, in the run-up to the Iraq war, he went on those TV programmes, as part of what Alastair Campbell called the masochism strategy. You could see the start of it then – the studio audiences treated him with a sort of disrespect that you hadn’t seen for a long time.”
Back in the court, after a long wait, the district judge finds Lawley-Wakelin guilty, fines him £100 and orders him to pay £250 court costs. Lawley-Wakelin, standing straight-backed, reddens slightly. Outside he stands on the steps, the lights of a television camera on his face. “I’d like to thank each individual for turning up and waiting all day for the deliberation,” he says. “For me to have been found guilty of causing Tony Blair harassment, alarm or distress, for calling him a war criminal while he is giving evidence in an inquiry that is looking into the lies and deceits of others is the greatest hypocrisy I’ve heard in a very long time.” He goes on for another minute, his supporters nodding as he speaks, before they start to walk off into the darkening afternoon.