29 years ago, on June 1, 1985, a convoy of around 450 men, women and children — travellers, anarchists, free festival goers and green activists — were ambushed by 1,400 police from six counties and the Ministry of Defence, and decommissioned with a violence that has rarely been paralleled in modern British history.
The convoy was en route to Stonehenge, to set up what would have been the 11th annual free festival in the fields opposite Britain’s most famous ancient monument, but the savage decommissioning of the travellers’ vehicles, their mass arrest, and the raising of a military-style exclusion zone around Stonehenge put paid to that prospect.
The exclusion zone was raised every June for the next 13 years, until the law lords ruled it illegal in 1999, and since then English Heritage have allowed unfettered access to the stones on the summer solstice, with up to 30,000 revellers — everyone from pagan priests to teenage party-goers — availing themselves of the “Managed Open Access” policy.
The irony — not lost on the survivors of the free festival — is that, in the festival years, only a few hundred of the tens of thousands of people who visited the festival every June actually crossed the road from the festival grounds to the stones, whereas now, after the long years of exclusion, all the authorities have managed to achieve is to stage, in the stone circle itself, a far bigger party than the festivals’ organisers could ever have dreamed of.
While there may be some humour in this situation, there is nothing funny about what happened to the travellers’ movement as a whole. In the aftermath of the Beanfield, Margaret Thatcher’s government passed legislation — the Public Order Act of 1986 — which began the criminalisation of large unlicensed public gatherings and the elimination of the travellers’ movement — the new nomadic culture that had arisen in the late 1970s as a response to the mass unemployment of the time and that had grown spectacularly under Margaret Thatcher, as she laid waste to the British state to pursue her malignant dream of a country run solely for profit by the private sector.
The counter-culture wasn’t wiped out immediately. Unexpectedly, rave culture appeared in the late ’80s, creating a mass movement of dissent, and other developments — the road protest movement and Reclaim the Streets, for example — also seized the popular imagination, feeding into the anti-globalisation movement that took off globally at the end of the 1990s.
Nevertheless, the government refused to accept widespread dissent — either as part of a genuinely open society, or, more importantly, as a considered response to the problems of capitalism, especially after the fall of Communism, and the establishment’s mistaken belief that this somehow vindicated capitalism as the world’s only viable economic model.
In response to rave culture, the government of John Major passed the Criminal Justice Act of 1994, which built on the repressive tendencies of the Public Order Act to outlaw unlicensed gatherings of more than a few people, to criminalise trespass and to do away with the requirements to provide sites for gypsies and other travellers.
As the anti-globalisation movement grew, governments responded with ever greater repression. In Genoa, in 2001, Italian police murdered a protestor, and in the UK the police came up with a new response to protest — kettling, the systematic imprisonment of large groups of protestors behind unbreakable police lines, for many hours, with food, drink and access to toilets denied.
Then, whether fortuitously or not, came 9/11 and the “war on terror,” which provided a perfect excuse for the West’s increasingly authoritarian governments to further clamp down on civil liberties and human rights, and to promote permanent war and a permanent climate of fear as a powerful but deeply cynical way of controlling entire populations.
Where once there had been some tolerance, and some give and take from the establishment, now inflexible governments sought to suppress all dissent except the most anodyne kind. In the UK, Tony Blair than went one step further, swatting aside the largest protest in British history — the two million-strong march in February 2003, against the war in Iraq, as though two million of us were nothing more than a single fly.
In doing so, he gained the undying, implacable opposition — even hatred — of many of those two million people, although some, of course, concluded only that all protest is futile. Furthermore, as Blair’s other drive, undertaken with his Chancellor, Gordon Brown — to eradicate socialism from the UK, to further Thatcher’s dream of a corporate state, and to turn the provision of housing into a casino of greed — became entrenched in the first decade of New Labour rule, the dissenting voices of the counter-culture were increasingly silenced.
As materialism, narcissism and self-obsession became the drivers of society, the impulses of the counter-culture — the voices of communality, the iconoclasts, the would-be land reformers and the environmentally conscious — became sidelined.
In 2011 and 2012, the Occupy movement represented a brief reawakening of many of these impulses, but after a brief flurry of mainstream interest in its otherwise marginalised demands — for land reform, socialism, and governments interested in creating employment rather than merely pimping for bankers, the super-rich and corporations — it was eventually suppressed.
Now, of course, with the shameful, embarrassing and, in many ways, profoundly troubling rise of populist, white, right-wing movements of bigots, xenophobes and racists blaming immigrants and the European Union for the crimes committed by and on behalf of the banks, corporations and the super-rich (step forward UKIP in the UK), the revival of a popular left-wing movement — or, probably more pertinently, the creation of a brand-new socialist movement — looks, disturbingly, to be further away than ever.
Echoes of fascism and fears of fascism are never far away when this type of darkness takes hold, and while I and many, many other people wonder when people will wake up in significant numbers, and if there is a way of creating solidarity that we haven’t thought of, I lament today, as I do every year on June 1, for the lost dissent of the counter-culture of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and the increasingly harried and endangered right to think differently, and to swim against the prevailing cultural tide.
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 six-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.
When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:
29 years ago today, 1,400 of Margaret Thatcher’s militarised police violently decommissioned the UK traveller movement at the Battle of the Beanfield, beating up and arresting children, women and men, and bringing to an end the anarchic annual jamboree that was the Stonehenge Free Festival. Today I reflect on how much the spirit of those times has been wiped out by the prevailing culture of selfish materialism.
Also still available, my first book, “Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion,” a detailed social history of Stonehenge, which, I learned recently, is finally being stocked at Stonehenge – after ten years – in the new visitors’ centre: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/stonehenge-celebration-subversion/
Sun Beams wrote:
Putting my hand in the air – as one who tries relentlessly to swim against tides – it does take much effort to swim against the current.
Yes, I know what you mean, Sun Beams. It can take enormous effort sometimes. Other times, though, I find the prevailing culture so empty and worthless that it’s not difficult at all!
Chris Stone wrote:
The Battle of the Beanfield
An extract from Fierce Dancing: remembering the anniversary of an infamous day in British history.
Thanks, Chris, for that link. Very powerful. Hard to believe it’s so long now since I first read “Fierce Dancing.” It was a big help to me while I was writing my first book on Stonehenge.
Chris Stone wrote:
Andy, I put links in for your books in that extract from Fierce Dancing I’ve just put up (see above.) CJ
And thanks also, Chris, for including those links to my books!
Chris Stone wrote:
Richard Turner wrote:
Great article about a neglected subject. I have shared it on Twitter.
Thank you, Richard. That’s very good to hear. Much appreciated.
Lorna Watson wrote:
Having read your post one year ago it is good to read this one in the context of the way things have progressed, or rather regressed politically. Though, I have seen a lot of people protesting for the first time because of fracking and other environmental concerns and against austerity, and sharing information in a way that people weren’t able to previously. Imagine if all the little protests and larger ones were on the news every night it would be astounding.
Thanks, Lorna, and I’m glad you mentioned the fracking protests, which are very significant – and remind me of the road protest movement of the 1990s. You’re also right about us having the ability to share information freely, but I do think the mainstream media’s failure to cover what’s really important – and its bias in other ways, like the endless promotion of UKIP, for example – is very damaging.
Simon Wells wrote:
Hi Andy, you make a hugely important point in your article as regards Stonehenge that the stones themselves were never an issue which many failed to address at the time. Namely, that the protection of the stones during the festival was a misnomer – and that they were used as a perverse
Thanks, Simon, you got cut off there, but I think you were about to say that the protection of the stones was used to justify shutting down the festival, when it wasn’t really an issue, and I think that’s correct. I recall also that, towards the end of the festival’s existence, a big deal was made about damage to one of the prehistoric burial mounds by festival-goers, even though the landscape around Stonehenge was already severely damaged by generations of landowners.
I think it’s also worth remembering that proprietorial archaeologists played a major part in demonising the festival-goers, because, in 1978 or 79, they had fulfilled what, to some of them, was a long-cherished dream – banning the public from the stones, on the basis that their presence caused too much wear and tear. It was certainly true that, in times of bad weather, the ground around the stones couldn’t cope with vast numbers of visitors, but for the most part the ban relied on a pretence that the stones themselves were particularly vulnerable to human contact, when, in fact, every stone that was structurally weak had been re-set in concrete, either at the start of the 20th century, or in the major works undertaken in the 1950s.
Lorna Watson wrote:
Absolutely agree Andy about the media. I sent a complaint to the BBC about the election coverage which was just a joke. There have been over 1000 complaints now, the most they’ve ever had about an election broadcast. I first became aware of BBC bias when I was part of the Hastings road protest last year and people were denied food and water by East Sussex County Council when they were 40 foot up trees in howling winds and rain. I ran up to the one BBC journalist who showed up and he looked at me with indifference and it wasn’t reported (but the removal of protesters was) meanwhile I was on the phone trying to find out if this was a breach of human rights, it was scary. There were pensioners in those trees! I don’t know if the media is a stronger force than all the twitter and Facebook posts and protests but there has never been a time before when people have been as aware of it. Just couldn’t imagine them getting away with what they did at the bean field without it causing outrage across the country. With the constant benefits ‘scrounging’ and immigrant ‘problem’ rhetoric it is turning neighbour against neighbour which is dangerous and worrying. There was this BBC protest in Glasgow yesterday: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7ycN4GJQHY&feature=youtu.be
Thanks, Lorna. Yes, the election coverage shows, at best, a dangerous dereliction of duty. Nigel Farage and UKIP have been treated as though they are the majority party in Parliament, and as though Farage is the PM. And with, it seems, just one exception (one radio show on LBC), he has never been confronted directly with the truth about his hateful and dangerous worldview.
And all this for a party with no MPs in the British Parliament, and no overall control of any council, whereas the Greens, who actually have an MP, are treated as though they don’t exist.
On Sunday, I was unfortunate enough to see Farage on Andrew Marr’s BBC1 show, where he got to promote himself in an essentially unchallenged manner yet again. Marr poked a homophobe/racist comment his way, but he just batted it aside, even though its clear that if Farage got in power, racism and the repatriation of “foreigners” would be the party’s main menu.
The BBC has been in decline since New Labour (Blair and Campbell) nearly destroyed them for exposing the truth about the “sexed-up” Iraq dossier, but I think there’s a more fundamental problem shared by other established media that, traditionally, were left of centre. Senior figures in the media are now part of the problem – paid far in excess of the average income, and essentially pretty well-off and complacent; part of the establishment that profits by preying off the poor and the young and the vulnerable, primarily through property, but also through workplaces that exploit young people for unpaid labour. In short, they have no hunger to combat injustice.
Of course the internet and the social media do a wonderful job for those of us who care, Lorna – and there are many, many millions of us worldwide, but far too many people either don’t go looking for alternative views, and accept the establishment view, or they have become completely detached from politics, and now only engage with it on, at most, a fleeting emotional level – as demonstrated by the support for UKIP.
That LBC interview with Farage, btw: http://www.lbc.co.uk/watch-nigel-farage-v-james-obrien-live-from-1130-90532
Simon Wells wrote:
Hi Andy – I wonder what happened?! Yes, the “protection of the stones” was a clear misnomer – as was the land around the monument, as it had been plowed for years. There was evidently a concerted effort to demonise every atom of the festival, although clearly – from the festival goers point of view – everyone was receptive to the idea of an “alternate site”. This is borne out from the news coverage of the day. So methinks a confrontation was expected, if not engineered. Hope you’re well.
Thanks again, Simon. Yes, it was definitely engineered. I think what we haven’t seen exposed – and perhaps it would make a good freedom of information project for someone – is how long and at what level discussions took place about how to engineer the festival’s demise and to cripple the travellers’ movement. My feeling is that it was particularly triggered by the establishment, in the summer of 1984, of the Molesworth peace camp, opposed to the planned creation of a second cruise missile base, which took its inspiration from Greenham but was not for women only, and that the detailed plans for the festival/traveller destruction date from the decision to eliminate the camp, in the largest ever peacetime mobilisation of troops, led by Michael Heseltine, which took place in February 1985. From then on, as is clear from contemporary accounts made available in my book, it was only a matter of time …
Lorna Watson wrote:
I saw this excellent interview and it really does show up how shocking the rest of the coverage is and what they are avoiding talking about while constantly flagging an issue like immigration which was the first question in the last Question Time program and much of the voices were UKIP supporters. However, there were some good responses from the other panel members. I noticed the way the Tories used the media to sell the link road to people based on a load of nonsense, if it is presented in a serious way on the news people believe it must be fact. So to have a program like Question Time open with the “problem” of immigration over all other issues that could be discussed it makes people believe this is a problem and who is dealing with this problem, oh it’s UKIP. The biggest joke is that Farage is “one of the people” considering the millions he’s made from being a member of the European Parliament while hardly ever being there and just turning up to antagonise everyone. Even if there are problems with the EU that need discussed his way is not the way to do it, it just stirs up resentment. Politics of hatred ruin society.
Lorna also sent this poster about Farage and UKIP: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152490377943552&set=p.10152490377943552&type=1&theater
Thanks again, Lorna. Reading your comments I was left with a sense of disgust at those in the media who would claim that they are not racist, but whose actions have done nothing to challenge the prevailing racism of Nigel Farage, UKIP and, unfortunately, far too many of our fellow citizens. In fact, by giving so much airtime and so many column inches to Farage and UKIP, they have behaved as though they condone what he is saying. Do they really, or are they so desperate for ratings and controversy that they actually can’t see what the damaging result is of pandering to fascists?
Simon Wells wrote:
Andy It may be timely to make the request – as the “30 year rule” on certain government papers will be lifted next year – and I dare say there might be some revelations within them. As you say, a good project for someone to push for.
Thanks again, Simon. Yes, if anyone wants to undertake freedom of information requests I’d be happy to also be involved.
Willy Bach wrote:
Andy, and today’s police officers are being just as misused today to shut down dissent.
Yes, since kettling was used for the May Day protests in Oxford Street in 2001, Willy, our freedom has been severely curtailed. On that occasion, the police held shoppers and office workers who’d nipped out for a sandwich for hours along with the protestors, depriving them all for many hours of food, drink and toilets. But they got away with it, and they’ve been doing it ever since. I did wonder, when Theresa May recently insulted the police at the Police Federation Conference, whether she’d committed the cardinal sin of failing to keep the police onside, which could get interesting, but I’m not holding my breath for the police to realise they’re of the people, rather than the servants of the oppressors.
Stephen Summers wrote:
You may have this Andy but to remind your readers of a conspiracy of how the far the far right could go. Observer June 1985 – “Neo-Nazi ‘tried to sell guns’ to hippy convoy”
Hey Stephen, great to hear from you. Thanks for that bit of black propaganda from 1985. Tory scum – they never change, eh? They’re still lying incessantly today and bashing whoever they can who’s not one of them …
David Harrold wrote:
Superbly well-written. Thanks, Andy.
Ajo Muhammad wrote:
Thanks Andy, brilliant as always. The world needs more people like you!
Thanks, David and Ajo, for the supportive words. I am working towards finding more time to express my serious worries about the philosophical ills of modern society – partly involving the slide towards intolerance and the demonising of others, but also involving an alarming and unfortunately prevalent tendency to filter all life through a prism of self-gratification, self-obsession and materialism.
Stephen Summers wrote:
Incredible what did Obama say Yes we can. No excuse for such poverty, human rights Justice and freedom. from Martin Luther to the Last Poets. Unity is a strong foundation love is better than hate. Keep up the good work Andy….
Thanks, Stephen, for the supportive words. Hard to believe it’s nearly 10 years since my Stonehenge book came out, and you came to London. I found out recently that it’s finally being stocked at Stonehenge!
One thing that has been forgot is the “peace convoy” when we took 70 odd vehicles cross country from Stonehenge site to Greenham common.. at this point the shitstem seemed to realise that we werent just a bunch of stoned revellers but ä definate alternative…
Thanks, Eddie. Yes, it’s an important point – and one that I discussed in my book, “Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion“. If I’d had more time for the anniversary article I’d have written more about the developments in the years before 1984/5 – not just the peace convoy to Greenham, but also other festivals focused on opposing nuclear energy, for example. I only had a few hours to write the article, on the train from Scotland, but as I say, a more detailed explanation is in the book for those who want to know.
On Facebook, after my friend Mo D’oh shared this, I wrote:
Thanks for sharing, Mo D’oh. As you know from your involvement with the Faslane peace camp, which was established in 1982 and is still ongoing, this was a period when powerful forms of political protest were established – Greenham, for example, which inspired the Molesworth camp which, in turn, played such a major part in Margaret Thatcher’s decision to crush the Stonehenge convoy at the Beanfield on June 1, 1985.
Diane H. Messer wrote:
Ordered by Thatcher–says it all. Watch what MP Glenda Jackson had to say about Thatcher upon her passing:
Thanks, Diane, for posting Glenda’s powerful words.
Here’s the Hansard transcript:
When I made my maiden speech in this Chamber, a little over two decades ago, Margaret Thatcher had been elevated to the other place but Thatcherism was still wreaking, and had wrought for the previous decade, the most heinous social, economic and spiritual damage upon this country, upon my constituency and upon my constituents. Our local hospitals were running on empty. Patients were staying on trolleys in corridors. I tremble to think what the death rate among pensioners would have been this winter if that version of Thatcherism had been fully up and running this year. Our schools, parents, teachers, governors, even pupils, seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time fundraising in order to be able to provide basic materials such as paper and pencils. The plaster on our classroom walls was kept in place by pupils’ art work and miles and miles of sellotape. Our school libraries were dominated by empty shelves and very few books; the books that were there were held together by the ubiquitous sellotape, and off-cuts from teachers’ wallpaper were used to bind those volumes so that they could at least hang together.
By far the most dramatic and heinous demonstration of Thatcherism was certainly seen not only in London, but across the whole country in metropolitan areas where every single night, every single shop doorway became the bedroom, the living room and the bathroom for the homeless. They grew in their thousands, and many of those homeless people had been thrown out on to the streets as a result of the closure of the long-term mental hospitals. We were told it was going to be called —it was called—“care in the community”, but what it was in effect was no care in the community at all.
I was interested to hear about Baroness Thatcher’s willingness to invite those who had nowhere to go for Christmas; it is a pity that she did not start building more and more social housing, after she entered into the right to buy, so that there might have been fewer homeless people than there were. As a friend of mine said, during her era, London became a city that Hogarth would have recognised—and, indeed, he would.
In coming to the basis of Thatcherism, I come to the spiritual part of what I regard as the desperately wrong track down which Thatcherism took this country. We were told that everything I had been taught to regard as a vice—and I still regard them as vices—was, in fact, under Thatcherism, a virtue: greed, selfishness, no care for the weaker, sharp elbows, sharp knees, all these were the way forward. We have heard much, and will continue to hear over next week, about the barriers that were broken down by Thatcherism, the establishment that was destroyed.
What we have heard, with the words circling around like stars, is that Thatcher created an aspirational society. It aspired for things. One former Prime Minister who had himself been elevated to the House of Lords, spoke about selling off the family silver and people knowing in those years the price of everything and the value of nothing. What concerns me is that I am beginning to see what might be the re-emergence of that total traducing of what I regard as the spiritual basis of this country where we do care about society, where we do believe in communities, where we do not leave people and walk by on the other side. That is not happening now, but if we go back to the heyday of that era, I fear that we will see replicated yet again the extraordinary human damage from which we as a nation have suffered and the talent that has been totally wasted because of the inability genuinely to see the individual value of every single human being.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) referred to the fact that although she had differed from Lady Thatcher in her policies, she felt duty bound to come here to pay tribute to the first woman Prime Minister this country had produced. I am of a generation that was raised by women, as the men had all gone to war to defend our freedoms. They did not just run a Government; they ran a country. The women whom I knew, who raised me and millions of people like me, who ran our factories and our businesses, and who put out the fires when the bombs dropped, would not have recognised their definition of womanliness as incorporating an iconic model of Margaret Thatcher. To pay tribute to the first Prime Minister denoted by female gender, okay; but a woman? Not on my terms.
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