27 years ago, a convoy of vehicles driven by refugees from the chronic unemployment of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain — commonly described as new age travellers, but also including environmental and anti-nuclear activists and land reformers — was set upon by police from six counties and the MoD, en route to Stonehenge, to establish what would have been the 12th Stonehenge Free Festival, an anarchic annual event that drew tens of thousands of visitors every June.
Cornered in a field by the A303, the convoy members — including women and children — were eventually set upon by the police in a distressingly violent manner, albeit one that was typical of life under Thatcher, bearing remarkable similarities to the violence meted out to the miners at Orgreave, in South Yorkshire, the year before.
I was one of those visitors to the Stonehenge Free Festival in 1983 and 1984, and the freedom and anarchy I experienced there helped to shape my belief that there are many different ways to live, and that dissent is a vital part of any functioning democracy. However, in the year that followed the Battle of the Beanfield, laws were implemented to try to make sure that the right to gather freely — and in huge numbers — would never be able to happen again, although they were not immediately successful. The new age traveller culture was severely damaged, but dissent reemerged unexpectedly in the form of the acid house movement , or rave culture, and was followed by the road protest movement, and groups like Reclaim the Streets, which helped to fuel a worldwide anti-globalization movement by the late 1990s.
Along the way, however, the British government succeeded in banning large unauthorized gatherings of those with a dissenting worldview, through the Criminal Justice Act of 1994, which followed the last great illegal gathering — at Castlemorton, in Gloucestershire — on the May Bank Holiday weekend in 1992, exactly 20 years ago, when tens of thousands of people revived the spirit of the Stonehenge festivals at the foot of the Malvern Hills.
In 1999, the exclusion zone that had turned Stonehenge into a war zone every summer was ruled illegal by the Law Lords, once more opening up access to the stones for revellers, who gather every summer solstice in huge numbers, for one day only — an irony, given that, during the festival years, only a small number of people gathered at the stones, while the majority stayed across the road at the main festival site.
In all other respects, however, the assault on our liberties that began under Margaret Thatcher only became worse under Tony Blair and New Labour, whose authoritarian impulses were given free rein through the excuses for repression offered by the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” a brutal, excessive and ill-conceived response to the 9/11 attacks, which has impacted most fundamentally on Muslims, who can be held under house arrest without charge or trial, and on the basis of evidence that is not disclosed to them.
The biggest protest in British history — against the Iraq war in February 2003 — was brushed aside by Blair as though two million people were nothing, and although that decision to stand shoulder to shoulder with George W. Bush eventually led to Blair’s fall, the repression that began under Thatcher and continued under John Major has proven to be unstoppable.
The UK now has more surveillance equipment watching its people than any other country on earth, and the all-encompassing materialism and the commodification of everything that has typified the last 15 years still dominates mainstream discourse, even though it led directly to the global economic crash of 2008, and is now manifesting itself in an ideologically motivated age of austerity, imposed on the majority of us, while the bankers and politicians who caused the crash continue to enrich themselves. Last summer’s response by those who are most excluded — the supposed “riots” — led to a savage and disgraceful response by the government, describing them as “feral,” by the courts, handing down draconian sentences for minor acts of looting, or the establishment of Facebook pages, and by a disturbingly large number of supposed intelligent middle class people who seem unable to understand that their relative wealth and contort is only possible through the exploitation of others.
With the forthcoming Olympics demonstrating everything that is wrong with the aggressive, corporate, militarised states in which we live — and this damned government bent on reducing everyone who is not rich into abject poverty or financial servitude, and, it seems, bent on the complete annihilation of the state, and the transfer of everything into private hands (except Parliament, the MoD and the judiciary) — the need for rebellion is greater than it has been for 30 years.
As I wait for people to wake up and understand that a war is going on between the 1 percent — who are turning their self-inflicted disaster into an opportunity to suppress us more than at any time in living memory — and the rest of us, I’d like to celebrate the spirit of those who were crushed at the Beanfield, but whose dissent could not be eliminated.
My book, The Battle of the Beanfield, published on the 20th anniversary of the Beanfield, is still available (as is my wider survey of the British counter-culture, Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion), and I also recommend the documentary film, “Operation Solstice,” which can be bought here (although I do realize that it’s also available online).
Below, I’m cross-posting an article I wrote for the Guardian three years ago, which, I believe, remains relevant. I’m also posting ITN’s footage from the Battle of the Beanfield, following a two-minute introduction by someone identifying himself as RubbishMan1940. The eight and a half minutes of footage includes ITN’s brief but disturbingly biased news broadcast from the day of the Beanfield, but also raw footage of the police’s assault on travellers, interviews with convoy members, and footage of ITN reporter Kim Sabido, visibly shocked by what he had seen.
I’m also posting “New Age Travellers,” a BBC Timeshift documentary from 2004, and a one-hour documentary about Reclaim the Streets. For more, see my articles, In the Guardian: Remembering the Battle of the Beanfield, which provides excerpts from my book The Battle of the Beanfield, and The Battle of the Beanfield 25th Anniversary: An Interview with Phil Shakesby, aka Phil the Beer, a prominent traveller who died two years ago. For more on dissent from the anti-globalisation movement to the Arab Spring, see The Year of Revolution: The “War on Tyranny” Replaces the “War on Terror”, and for commentary on how gypsies and travellers still face persecution in the UK, see my articles about the disgraceful eviction last year of gypsies and travellers at Dale Farm, The Dale Farm Eviction: How Racism Against Gypsies and Travellers Grips Modern-Day Britain and The Dale Farm Eviction: Using Planning Laws to Justify Racism Towards Gypsies and Travellers.
Exactly 24 years ago, in a field beside the A303 in Wiltshire, the might of Margaret Thatcher‘s militarised police descended on a convoy of new age travellers, green activists, anti-nuclear protestors and free festival-goers, who were en route to Stonehenge in an attempt to establish the 12th annual Stonehenge free festival in fields across the road from Britain’s most famous ancient monument. That event has become known as the Battle of the Beanfield.
In many ways the epitome of the free festival movement of the 1970s, the Stonehenge free festival – an annual anarchic jamboree that, in 1984, had attracted tens of thousands of visitors – had been an embarrassment to the authorities for many years, but its violent suppression, when police from six counties and the Ministry of Defence cornered the convoy of vehicles in a field and, after an uneasy stand-off, invaded the field on foot and in vehicles, subjecting men, women and children to a distressing show of physical force, was, like the Miners’ strike the year before, and the suppression of the printers at Wapping the year after, a brutal display of state violence that signaled a major curtailment of civil liberties.
In the context of political dissent at the time, the Stonehenge festival was a mere sideshow, but the government knew that its suppression would not cause offence to the general public, especially as most media outlets were prevailed upon to refrain from reporting on it (valiant exceptions were the Observer’s Nick Davies and Kim Sabido for ITN). As a result, the government knew that it could disguise its other motives: the curtailment in general of the British public’s right to gather freely without prior permission, and the suppression of a grassroots movement opposed to the installation of US cruise missiles on UK soil.
The most celebrated opponents of nuclear weapons in the UK were the women of Greenham Common, but as it would have been a PR disaster to have had police truncheoning a group of women, the new age travellers, who had set up a peace camp at RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire (the proposed second base for cruise missiles) were a more obvious target, and the Battle of the Beanfield took place just four months after 1,500 soldiers and police – in the largest peacetime mobilisation of its kind – were used to evict the camp.
Above all, though, the major fallout from the Battle of the Beanfield was the government’s manipulation of the manufactured hysteria about the travellers and protestors to introduce the 1986 Public Order Act, which enabled the police to evict two or more people for trespass, providing that “reasonable steps have been taken by or on behalf of the occupier to ask them to leave.” The act also stipulated that six days’ written notice had to be given to the police before most public processions, and allowed the police to impose unspecified “conditions” if they feared that a procession “may result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community.”
The Battle of the Beanfield was not the end of grassroots dissent in the UK – although it gutted the travellers’ movement – as a new “threat” emerged just a few years later, when the acid house scene, with its giant warehouse raves and outdoor parties, once more threw the government – and the tabloids – into an authoritarian frenzy. As with Stonehenge, the catalyst for a further assault on civil liberties was another large free festival, at Castlemorton common in Gloucestershire, on the May bank holiday weekend in 1992.
The legislation that followed – the 1994 Criminal Justice Act – not only repealed the 1968 Caravans Sites Act, criminalising the entire way of life of gypsies and travellers by removing the obligation on local authorities to provide sites for gypsies, but also amended the Public Order Act by introducing the concept of “trespassory assembly.” This enabled the police to ban groups of 20 or more people meeting in a particular area if they feared “serious disruption to the life of the community,” even if the meeting was non-obstructive and non-violent, and the act also introduced “aggravated trespass,” which finally transformed trespass from a civil to a criminal concern.
Both had disturbing ramifications for almost all kinds of protests and alternative gatherings, and were clearly ramped up after the government failed to secure convictions after the Battle of the Beanfield using an ancient charge of “unlawful assembly.” Moreover, as protestors have been discovering in the years since the passing of the Criminal Justice Act, the groundwork laid by the Public Order Act and the Criminal Justice Act provided the Labour government, which has passed more legislation directed at civil liberties than any previous government, to start from a presumption that there were few, if any instances when a peaceful protest by just two people could not be suppressed.
Back in 1997, some of us had a quaint notion that the government would repeal the excesses of the Criminal Justice Act; instead, we are living with three other changes enacted by the Act that still have resonance today: the police’s right to take DNA samples from those arrested, increased “stop and search” powers, and amendments to the right to silence of an accused person, allowing inferences to be drawn from their silence. We have an exclusion zone around parliament, in which a single non-violent protestor can be arrested, anti-terror legislation used to stifle dissent, and, as we saw at the G20 protests in April, policemen once more hiding their identification numbers – as they did at the Battle of the Beanfield – to enable them to assault civilians (or worse) with impunity.
Footage from the Battle of the Beanfield.
“New Age Travellers,” a BBC Timeshift documentary from 2004.
“Reclaim the Streets,” an independent documentary from 2000.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
Great to hear from you – and sorry to hear that you and others living an alternative lifestyle continue to be harassed. I came across that many years ago – under New Labour – when British Waterways (dubbed Brutish Waterways by campaigners) sold off the only boatyard in Oxford to developers. I had a friend, the photographer Adrian Arbib, who was very involved in that campaign, and I learned quite a lot about how those living on boats were being targeted. That said, there are still a lot of people living on boats here in London, but we’ll all need to watch the Tories closely. Having won an election unexpectedly – or, as I prefer to put it, having stolen it legally, with the support of just 24.4% of the eligible voters – they’re on a high, thinking they can get away with whatever new assaults on those who are not Tories comes into their vindictive and unpleasant minds.
The police protect the rest of us and our belongings from the job avoiding travellers that leave human waste and rubbish behind. It can’t be denied we lived close to the Castlemorton site and saw the detritus that was left. I have no sympathy
Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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