Yesterday, December 1, 2013, was a cheerless anniversary of sorts — 28 and a half years since the Battle of the Beanfield, on June 1, 1985, when 1,300 police from six counties and the MoD trapped and violently decommissioned a convoy of several hundred travellers — men, women and children, the new nomads of the UK, including free festival goers, anarchists, and anti-nuclear activists — en route to Stonehenge to establish what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival. From humble origins in 1974, the festival had grown, by 1984, into a month-long counter-cultural extravaganza attended by tens of thousands of people, and in 1985, fresh from her success in suppressing the miners, Margaret Thatcher turned her attention to the festival and its loose network of organisers, planning to destroy it as ruthlessly as she was destroying British industry.
in 2005, to mark the 20th anniversary of this key event in the modern state’s clampdown on dissent, I compiled and edited a book about the Battle of the Beanfield, drawing on transcripts I made of interviews with travellers and witnesses to the events of the day and the months building up to it that were recorded for a 1991 TV documentary, “Operation Solstice” (screened on Channel 4 and available to buy here); the police log, liberated from a court case brought by some of the victims of the Beanfield; and other relevant information, book-ended with essays putting the Beanfield in context, written by myself and Alan Dearling, whose publishing company, Enabler Publications, launched the book in June 2005.
Eight and a half years later, The Battle of the Beanfield is still in print, and, to slightly contradict the heading of this article, it has never actually been out of print, although in summer, when Alan and I reprinted it, I was down to my last few copies. You can buy it here, in time for Christmas, if you, or anyone you’re hoping to buy a present for, was there, was affected by it, or is simply interested in knowing more about one of the key events that shaped the relationship between the state and those perceived as difficult. I should note that my previous book, Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion, is also still available, as is my third book, The Guantánamo Files.
After years of exclusion from Stonehenge on the solstice, revellers secured a court victory in 1999 that allowed their return to the great stones on the solstice in 2000, for a programme of “Managed Open Access” that takes place every year, attended by tens of thousands of people.
Elsewhere, though, the assault on the traveller community and the laws that followed it paved the way not only for the permanent oppression of travellers and gypsies, but also the rolling back of the British people’s ability to gather freely and to collectively challenge the status quo. Although the Beanfield was followed by unexpected movements of dissent — acid house and warehouse raves, the road protest movement, Reclaim the Streets, the massive anti-globalisation movement of the late 1990s — it seems to me that the 21st century has brought to an end the kind of dissent that played such a prominent part in post-war Britain, and, particularly, from the 1960s to the 1990s.
Following on from the laws enacted from the Beanfield to the 1990s, the 9/11 attacks allowed the government of Tony Blair to further curtail civil liberties, to an alarming degree, and to enshrine the erosion of human rights as a key element of modern government. And of course, Blair also drove the illegal invasion of Iraq, and the state of permanent war and jingoistic nationalism that we now seem to be stuck with. In addition, housing — a basic necessity for all — has become, instead, the key driver of the economy, manifested through a bubble that is artificially maintained by the government and the banks, working to further enrich the rich, and to make sure that what would be best for people and the economy as a whole — a massive programme of social homebuilding, to create genuinely affordable homes for rent — is not going to happen.
Making a property bubble into the main focus of the economy is a dangerous and disgustingly greedy distortion of a well-functioning economy, but it is not surprising given that it is part of the overall criminal behaviour of the financial markets, unregulated and still out of control, even though they crashed the global economy in 2008 — and, it must be noted, their largely unquestioning and complicit backers in government.
Since the time of the Beanfield, when the status quo was permanently challenged, experimentation and iconoclasm were rife, money was not the only arbiter of existence, and, for various reasons, the doors of perception were wide open, it seems to me that life has shrunk, and has had its spirit crushed. It is impossible now to imagine tens of thousands of people responding to massive unemployment by taking to the road in old coaches and buses and former military vehicles, although for many people today — and especially young people, plagued with massive unemployment — it would make even more sense than it did in the 1970s and 1980s.
That, however, looks extremely unlikely. 28 years ago, it was unimaginable that the present would look like it does now, but what we are currently living through has no room for nomadic romanticism and iconoclasm on a shoestring. Instead, the world now demonstrates the triumph of excessive materialism, in which everything has been commodified, and far too many of my fellow human beings seem to have become nothing more than dead-eyed, gym-pumped machines. In this world, driven by shark-toothed, insatiable greed on an unthinkable scale, in institutions that like to pretend they are lawful and appropriate when they are no such thing, I long for the return of the kind of dissent that I experienced at Stonehenge in 1983 and 1984, or in 1995 at the first “Reclaim the Streets” event in Camden High Street, when dissenters crashed two old cars and took over Camden High Street for the day, taking back “our” spaces from the cars that dominated us then and that dominate us even more completely now — or any of the events that followed, including the takeover of the M41 in Shepherd’s Bush in July 1996, the massive J18 Carnival Against Capital in the City of London in June 1999, and the other anti-globalisation protests that took place around the world at the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st.
Ditch the car, stop being greedy, unplug yourselves from your i-Pods and your smart phones and interact with the world around you: these are messages that could have been beamed to the present from 1985, from the world I commemorated in The Battle of the Beanfield, and the spirit whose absence pains me as Britain, my home, descends into hard, harsh, tiny-minded xenophobia and racism and flag-waving, pea-brained nationalism, and the only perceived virtues are greed, exploitation, worship of the rich and hatred of the poor.
Below is an excellent “Reclaim the Streets” documentary, via YouTube, chronicling the protest movement of the 1990s, which was made by Agustin de Quijano for Channel 4 in 2000. This is a reloaded, 66-minute version of the original, which is 50 minutes long (thanks, Neil!):
For further information, see my articles “Stonehenge and the summer solstice: past and present” (2008), “In the Guardian: Remembering the Battle of the Beanfield” (linking to my 2009 Guardian article, “Remember the Battle of the Beanfield”), “It’s 25 Years Since The Last Stonehenge Free Festival” (2010), “New Photo Book on the 1994 Solsbury Hill Road Protest,” “The Battle of the Beanfield 25th Anniversary: An Interview with Phil Shakesby” (featuring one of the chapters from the book), “Stonehenge Summer Solstice 2010: Remembering the Battle of the Beanfield,” “RIP Sid Rawle, Land Reformer, Free Festival Pioneer, Stonehenge Stalwart,” “Happy Summer Solstice to the Revellers at Stonehenge — Is it Really 27 Years Since the Last Free Festival?” (2011), “Remember the Battle of the Beanfield: It’s the 27th Anniversary Today of Thatcher’s Brutal Suppression of Traveller Society” (2012), “Radio: On Eve of Summer Solstice at Stonehenge, Andy Worthington Discusses the Battle of the Beanfield and Dissent in the UK,” “It’s 28 Years Since Margaret Thatcher Crushed Travellers at the Battle of the Beanfield” and “Memories of Youth and the Need for Dissent on the 29th Anniversary of the last Stonehenge Free Festival” (both 2013).
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).
To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.
On Facebook, George Kenneth Berger wrote:
Sharing this, Andy. A friend looked for this several weeks ago and found that it was out of print. I don’t remember who it was, so I hope he or she sees this.
Thanks, George. I’m surprised to hear that it was declared out of print somewhere. Alan Dearling (of Enabler Publications) was anxious to make sure that we got it reprinted as soon as we needed it, and he deals with the various trade orders.
When I posted the link to this on Facebook, I wrote:
My 2005 book “The Battle of the Beanfield” is back in print, recording, through the words of travellers, journalists, a landowner and the police, what happened on June 1, 1985, when Margaret Thatcher unleashed 1,300 police (from six counties and the MoD) on travellers making their way to Stonehenge to set up what would have been the 12th Stonehenge Free festival. A dark day in British history.
I also wrote:
My plug for the book is accompanied by a brand-new essay comparing 1985 to now – and looking at what we’ve lost in terms of the right to dissent, and, I believe, a certain spirit of life that has generally gone missing.
I included the video of the Reclaim the Streets movement, becasue it’s very powerful, but it also made me miss, viscerally, the dissent and iconoclasm of the 70s to the 90s, and reflect, sadly, on how boring a life based on shopping is – yes, that’s the here and now.
I should mention that the anti-fracking protestors give me hope – and I must try to get along to a protest sometime. Some links here:
Thanks, Tony. I’m very glad to see that you’re still selling the “Operation Solstice” video. Co-director Neil Goodwin is back in the country, so perhaps we can do some events next year to mark the 30th anniversary of the last Stonehenge Free Festival – if not, then definitely in 2015 for the 30th anniversary of the Beanfield.
Hi Andy there’s all different footage of the bean field on youtube ie the ..lost itn newsreels were the camera crew were beaten by the police themselves,but wot do you think about boris and his cornflake speech
Hi Damo, yes I know there’s quite a lot of Beanfield footage out there, as well as the “Operation Solstice” film in its entirety. Here’s the uncut ITN footage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3JCkUZAwvEA
I’m hoping there’ll be a new print of “Operation Solstice” in the not too distant future, but in the meantime I recommend buying the DVD from Culture Shop, for anyone who’s interested: http://www.cultureshop.org/details.php?code=OPSOL
As for Boris, I’m wondering why he’s suddenly and so openly praising the super-rich, and now airing the privileged few’s self-serving view of themselves as getting to the top because of their abilities, and not because they’re almost entirely on their own on a playing field that is so selective that it makes South African or Israeli apartheid look like equality: http://newint.org/blog/2013/12/02/boris-johnson-elite/
I hope he isn’t reading the way the wind is blowing, and positioning himself as the fat, cuddly Hitler who will preside over a full-blown return to a two-class system – of rulers and serfs. On most days, it seems to me that our bitter, deluded, sheep-like fellow citizens are ready for a new future being permanently ground beneath their rulers’ heels, but secure in the knowledge that immigrants, the “workshy” and the disabled are getting it worse …
[…] summer. This movement was dealt a dolorous blow in 1985 with the Battle of the Beanfield, an act of state brutality surely sanctioned at the highest level, partly in revenge for the incursion at the projected cruise […]
i was there i will never forget it.
Thanks for the comment, Dee. Good to hear from you.
Hi Andy, here’s a re-edit that I made of the RTS film. Tony, do you still do videos? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2snn3XDbLg
Interesting, Neil. I put this revised version up. So what’s the story, my friend? Were you involved in this film?
Neil Goodwin wrote:
I shot a lot of the Camden street party, the first one, and I knew the main film maker, who got very paranoid at one stage and kind of fell out of sight. Considering the recent revelations about infiltration, a lot of what he hinted at came out eventually.
Thanks, Neil. Is that Ajustin? I guess you’re right about infiltration, given revelations in the last few years, as we were discussing last week: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2013/jun/21/mclibel-leaflet-police-bob-lambert-mcdonalds
I didn’t know you’d been filming at the first RTS in Camden. Our paths could’ve crossed!
I just watched the réclame the streets vid,what the fuck has happened….they must be putting something in the water to dumb people down to pacifiy them distract them with the gadgets ,the gizmos ..were have all these people gone we have gone from protest to passive in just one generation the brain dead …boris is showing us…just who and what he realy is ..isn’t he
It makes me miss the late 80s and the 90s an incredible time ..this era were in now absolutely sucks big time
Yes, watching the video took me back to that hopeful time. I hated the 80s under Thatcher, with the same permanent outrage I have now for the killer clowns of this Tory-led coalition government, but we always thought change was possible, and there were so many of us. Even when we were ground down, we had solidarity and our humanity. We knew how to have a good time, the cost of living wasn’t prohibitive, and it was easy to sign on – as Thatcher decimated industry, and destroyed numerous businesses – and relatively cheap to rent a place, or even to open up a squat.
I do find the extent of the change to be almost unthinkable. The supremacy of money and property, the ubiquity of smartphones and endless shopping define life for far too many people, and those who don’t have a place on this aspirational ladder have had their politics removed, rather like being flayed alive, and the end result of that is what we see today – misery and wretchedness, and a kind of social cannibalism, as the poor turn on each other. I always used to characterise Tony Blair – the great betrayer of the British spirit – as someone who wanted everyone to go to bed early (apart from the rich, of course, who could do what they wanted), and I blame him and New Labour for the death of left-wing conviction. Now the pimps and accountants and roly-poly supremacists like Boris are running the show, and the spiritual health of Britain – and the prospects of a proud and worthwhile life for an increasingly large number of people – look to be in terminal decline.
If it’s true wot your saying Andy then god help us..I think we’re not just here in the uk but the world humanity if you will is at a turning point..no for real one path leads to the death of everything the other to the blossoming of a new world and maybe a new kind of human the path and thought process were on now is destructive and short term it’s a path that cannot be continued to be trod it will result in the end….of everything..I hope we as a species can change I realy do
I don’t see a way out, Damo, unless we get some solidarity amongst people. Apart from the alarmingly racist and/or xenophobic hatred on the streets, which I hear so often when I engage in casual chats with my fellow Londoners, the only other prevailing trend is one of insular self-obsession and material aspiration – basically, whatever people can get for themselves. I was in Greenwich today looking at estate agents’ windows, seeing loads of 2-bed flats advertised at £1500 a month. That’s £18,000 a year, for rent, which is more than many people earn. And for those renting out properties, what, I wonder, is their mark-up, and how many properties do they have? And does anyone, ever, tell them that cranking up the rent until their tenants are doing little more than working to pay for them to sit on their arses is immoral. Does anyone know or care about morality any more? Does anyone read A Christmas Carol (the story of Ebenezer Scrooge) at Christmas or remember or even understand what Charles Dickens was saying?
Nowadays when people protest in numbers large enough to hold off the police, it just degenerates into rioting, theft, and people getting murdered.
People won’t understand what a christmass carol was about they wouldn’t get it theres a hatred all around at the moment like we’re entering a new dark ages my grasping landlord dosent care he made his millions and built up his stinking property empire by buying up slums and unrentable propertys houseing the desperate, the poor, the war torn refugees…all the while rinsing the houseing benefit for as much as possible now the gravy train is over he,s not houseing anyone but private tenants ..as in the words of his grinning familiar he can charge much much more money with private rents yet he is were he is because of the poor…get the picture greed, vanity, selfishness, avarice ..these are the ways to be now it’s how people get ahead today..I believe change will come andy …..it’s got to..it will
The sad tragic and super grotesque thing is andy if you hauled these vile parasitical landlords over the coals and told them your greedy, grasping, immoral parasite they would think you lost your mind, your mad, your a near dowel. my landlord thought nothing of leaving me in a very stressfull and dangerous situation..he thought nothing of it at all…either put up shut up or move on……..
I’ve just been david niven,s biography the moons a balloon he arrived penniless in California in the early 30s did odd jobs the usual stuff was an extra but when he made it become a star he left a glittering career in Hollywood to come back to England and fought on the beaches at Normandy and witnessed all that horror …you wouldn’t get that now such valour and Honour such selflessness. Would you
I guess you’re referring to the “riots” of August 2011, Thomas, when there was looting, and some very unfortunate violence and deaths. I can understand that for some people that originated in an explosion of anger against persistent and heavy-handed policing in “troubled” areas, and I was appalled by the witch-hunt, on the part of the government, the police and the judiciary, in tracking down everyone involved – mainly via CCTV – and handing down punitive sentences. Someone who stole two small bottles of mineral water from a looted shop got a six month sentence, if I recall correctly.
However, I thought at the time, and I still do, that it was unrest devoid of coherent political opposition to the status quo, and those perceived to be oppressors, and I believe that’s where the problem lies. As the rich get richer, the poor are not mobilising in solidarity.
Thanks, Damo. I am appalled to hear about your landlord, and I’m sorry you have to endure such an evidently unpleasant human being. I guess he’ll have his gravy train, squeezing those who can – just about – afford it in private rents rather than housing benefit, but I don’t see how it all adds up, with ever-increasing rents and yet so many people in horribly badly-paid jobs, often only part-time, and on zero hours contracts. If the state won’t intervene, either to support low paid workers, or to bring down the cost of living, I can’t see how vast numbers of poorer workers will be able to remain in London at all over the next few years. It makes my blood boil just thinking about the political complacency involved in presiding over this dreadful state of affairs.
Again, Damo, I’m sorry to hear that, my friend. The story of your landlord just gets worse and worse. It’s another indictment of the situation whereby, since Thatcher, there are no controls on landlords, who can do what they want. If we had strong moral voices, it might make a difference, but instead we have a culture that encourages exploitation for personal gain. and when there are no rules and money is everything, people outdo Scrooge, and their inner sadists and perverts and flint-hearted scumbags come to the fore …
No, I can’t imagine that now, Damo. The self-obsession is too all-consuming, sadly.
Well Andy I’ll be one of those leaving london for ever this time even working I’ll never be able to afford the rents as we all know there out of control I,d like to go to mainland Europe maybe Spain somewhere warm and a whole lot cheaper,lol it’s funny people here demonise the so called immigrants but all the so called immigrants I’ve ever met have been real ..good..people kind intelligent, considerate, well mannered…moral….and I have to say they …outclass…the English in just about every way,lol,lol. They seem uplifted life affirming people ..and that’s the people to be around ..dxx
The six month sentence most likely meant only two months served-which is still a bit OTT. A caning with three strikes on each hand, and no criminal record to mess up one’s job chances for years would have been a proper punishment for the thief-punishment, but not one that would be grossly over the top or turn the perp into a worse criminal/make him or her unemployable.
How could I possibly argue with that, Damo? I had a laugh today in a shop on the Hackney/Stoke Newington borders with a shopkeeper and a delivery man who fitted that description – they certainly weren’t the bitter white British I keep encountering, and we had a laugh.
I loved being in Sicily in summer, but of course Italy has its own employment problems, as does Spain, although not the angry misery and unfettered greed of London. Greece looks to be a sad example though of how a country can fall into chaos if strangled enough. There it was the European banks and the EU pulling the plug; here, it’s the toffs waging a one-sided civil war on the poor. I’d like you to be here if the people ever rise up – but the chances of that look as remote as ever!
I’m not sure what happened in the case of that particular young man, Thomas. My feeling is that leniency of any kind wasn’t on the cards at any point in the process. This is what the Guardian wrote about it:
At Camberwell Green magistrates, Nicholas Robinson, 23, an electrical engineering student with no previous convictions, was jailed for the maximum permitted six months after pleading guilty to stealing bottles of water worth £3.50 from Lidl in Brixton. He had been walking back from his girlfriend’s house in the early hours of Monday morning when he saw the store being looted, his lawyer said, and had taken the opportunity to go in and help himself to a case of water because he was thirsty. He was caught up in the moment, and was ashamed of his actions, his defence said.
But the prosecution told judge Alan Baldwin: “This defendant has contributed through his action to criminal activities to the atmosphere of chaos and sheer lawlessness.” There were gasps from the public gallery as his sentence was delivered.
The uk makes us bitter,lol,lol I’d like to be here …..if we did rise up…but Andy I can’t see a future for myself here..wot a future on…workfare…till I’m 70. Liveing in rented hovels broke..no,no,no,no way I’d rather have nothing but be surrounded by positive life affirming people and be in the sunshine and warmth..even if I’m liveing in a tent,lol lol ..
Andy I would stay if we rise up just picture it the toffs stripped of all financial and material wealth the windstorms sent into exile on the isle of egg the bankers rounded up and lynched in Trafalgar Square all those vanity buildings like the shard,the gherkin …ablaze…the vile candy brothers hideous 1 hide park corner…raised to the ground..all the cast of made in Chelsea in chains …ooooh Andy it’s all to much I,m going to have to retire now,lol,lol,lol dxx
Hard to argue, Damo. In the late 80s, under Thatcher, I felt the same as she started selling off the family silver, and the focus of the economy shifted from industry to the City. I was living on an estate in Brixton – the Loughborough Estate – when the first salvo in the war to eradicate social housing took place. They were called “Housing Action Trusts,” and there were six of them in the UK. The wheeze was that the estates would be removed from council control (in this case Lambeth), the tenants moved out, and then mates of Thatcher would do them up and then rent them back to the former tenants – although obviously at many times the previous rent. The mainly black population of the Angell Town Estate, which was also part of the HAT, led the fight against the government, driven, in particular, by the fact that Lambeth had already forcibly removed them from their homes in the 70s to build Angell Town (when, ironically, they were moved out of Victorian terraces thta, if saved, would have neded up being a goldmine). They were led by one formidable woman, who I admired greatly, and I recall one memorable occasion when a minister came to a meeting on the estate and was made very unwelcome. As he drove off, there were tins cans tied to his car.
Anyway, thanks to the residents of Angell Town, in particular, the HAT plan was defeated – but only temporarily, of course, as many town and cities have now handed over all their social housing to housing associations. But for me, most of a year was consumed with the campaign and there was very little brightness in Thatcher’s Britain at that time, and I would have settled for a tent somewhere warm and friendly. I completely understand your plan to leave, Damo.
i have all my family and friends here andy …but it is just getting harder and harder to live here and london is being squeezed dry in the 90s you could do your own thing be creative and still pay the rent not have to sighn on or be a part of the system i rented a attic flat in an old pub on the haggerston estate in hackney for years the rent was £65 for the whole time i rented the place 8 years yes it was run down round there but so wot i loved it …you cant live like that anymore being productive but doing your own thing and earning your own money..there are to many shysters with open hands now esp from the top there killing any creativity here in london real creativity not shorditch rich kid bullsit but the real creatives and movers are being driven out.
I can’t argue with that, Damo, unfortunately. Everything – literally, everything that is regarded as important – has become so horribly commodified, and the cost of living cranked up to such a extent, to pay for the hordes of middlemen (the scourge of British life) who do nothing but sit on their arses collecting money from everyone and everything they have a cut of, that the old way of being creative, getting by and minding your own business has been wiped out. Even for those who have managed to find a way of still getting by, there’s no alternative culture to be part of.
Not only do I want that world back for my own selfish reasons, but we also need it. One of the great strengths of the British people is our creativity, and we should be finding ways to enable artistic people to have cheap rents and to be self-sufficient, rather than having those who are older and richer exploiting them 24/7.
Writer, campaigner, investigative journalist and commentator. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.”
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