30 Years On from the Last Stonehenge Free Festival, Where is the Spirit of Dissent?

21.6.14

As tens of thousands of people gathered at Stonehenge last night and this morning for the summer solstice — and, presumably, more photos were taken than ever before, including, of course, the ubiquitous “selfie,” an example of which can be seen in the photo to the left — I recall that, 30 years ago, in June 1984, the last Stonehenge Free Festival took place in the fields opposite Stonehenge, and I was one of the tens of thousands of people who took part in it.

I had first visited with friends the year before, and had been astonished to discover that, while Margaret Thatcher was embarking on her malevolent plan to create a taxpayer-funded privatised Britain of selfishness, consumerism and unfettered greed, tens of thousands of people were on Salisbury Plain — partying, yes, or just getting wasted, but also sidelining consumerism and embracing communalism and alternative ways of living and looking at the world.

My experiences were central to my book Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion, a social history of Stonehenge, which I wrote over an 18-month period from 2002 to 2004, and which was published ten years ago. It’s still in print, and you can buy it from me here, or from the publisher, Heart of Albion Press, or, if you must, from Amazon. After ten years, it is also — finally — being stocked at Stonehenge itself, in the new visitors’ centre that opened last December.

From humble beginnings ten years before, the Stonehenge Free Festival had grown to become the definitive counter-cultural expression of hedonism and dissent, a month-long manifestation of an alternative society, which so alarmed the authorities that the following year an advance convoy, travelling to Stonehenge to secure the festival site on June 1, was set upon by 1,400 police from six counties and the MoD, and decommissioned with shocking violence at an event that will forever be known as “The Battle of the Beanfield.” My book, The Battle of the Beanfield, about the terrible events of that day is also still available. For bulk orders, please contact Enabler Publications.

For 13 years after the Beanfield, a military-style exclusion zone was raised around Stonehenge every solstice, until, eventually, the Law Lords ruled that it was illegal. After a failed attempt to introduce managed access in 1999, through a ticketed event, a “Managed Open Access” policy was introduced in 2000, which has continued ever since, with free access allowed for a period of around 12 hours, from the evening on June 20 to the morning of June 21.

I visited Stonehenge, via “Managed Open Access,” every year from 2001 to 2005, and it was wonderful to finally be allowed back into the stones, although the irony was not lost on me, or on others familiar with the free festival, that while the festival occupied the fields opposite Stonehenge, only a few hundred people cared enough about the stones to make their way across the road for events on and around the solstice, whereas now up to 30,000 people gather in the stones, many of whom are drawn more by the promise of a free party than by any particular interest in the stones.

Mostly, though, while I have always appreciated the fact that “Managed Open Access” at least allows people to step outside of consumer society for 12 hours, with no entrance fee, and nothing to buy for the duration of the event, I lament how mainstream society has so thoroughly sidelined the counter-culture that dissent has  largely been done away with. We have our alternative points of view online, and there are a handful of vibrant political protests — against fracking, for example — but the main impulse of society is to ensure that people spend as much and as often as possible during their every waking hour, and, if they don’t have any money, that they don’t cause any problems.

35 years ago, the travellers’ movement arose in response to the mass unemployment of the time, which only got worse under Margaret Thatcher, and in the years that followed, despite the Tory government’s best efforts to suppress dissent, new forms of protest kept emerging, hybrid mutant variations of what had come before — the rave scene of the late 80s and early 90s, for example, and the road protest movement, which in turn led to the Reclaim the Streets movement, which fed into the anti-globalisation movement of the late 90s and the early 21st century.

In the meantime, however, darker forces were at work — a thoroughly unregulated financial sector was taking uncontrolled greed to a new level, while politicians presided over a monstrous housing bubble that perfectly matched a growing selfishness and self-obsession in society as a whole. In terms of stifling dissent, the “war on terror” provided a perfect opportunity to further strip civil liberties and assault basic human rights, and this, along with the development of “kettling,” and the increase in surveillance — via CCTV or online — plus the increasing privatisation of what was once public land provides a stark intimation of a growing dystopian police state, in which our sense of privacy — and our ability to be unseen — has been thoroughly eroded.

And running though all of this — still — is Stonehenge, the focal point of dissent in the late 70s and early 80s not only for the land reformers of the convoy, and the self-sufficient economy of the free festival circuit, but also for the green activists who particularly brought the weight of the state down on them at the Beanfield, because they had also been involved in protesting against Britain’s military subjugation by the US — establishing a peace camp at Molesworth in Cambridgeshire, the planned second site for cruise missiles after Greenham Common, where, of course, a famous women’s peace camp existed, whose occupants couldn’t be coralled into a field and truncheoned into submission like the Stonehenge convoy.

Tens of thousands of people had gathered at Stonehenge for the last few free festivals, and after the festival’s suppression legislation was passed — the Public Order Act of 1986 — that began the process of criminalising unauthorised gatherings. The numbers attending the Stonehenge festivals were matched only, in later years, by the Castlemorton Free Festival in Gloucestershire in May 1992, which I also attended, and which, in turn, was followed by further legislation — the Criminal Justice Act of 1994 — that finally made unauthorised gatherings illegal. Whereas previously 30,000 people had gathered with impunity, now just two people — yes, just two people — in a field, or involved for what the police might consider to be preparations for a rave (involving amplified music “wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”) can be arrested.

Under Tony Blair and now David Cameron, the rhetoric has now been ramped up even more. Under Blair, protestors became “domestic terrorists,” and Cameron, of course, criminalised squatting, which previously had been a purely civil offence. In London, there is now an epidemic of empty buildings occupied by “guardians” — young people, often artists, who are obliged to pay dodgy security companies to live in empty properties and protect them from squatters.

With youth unemployment at record levels, rents in the south east at an all-time high, tenant protections against unscrupulous landlords at an all-time low, and no politicians prepared to put the needs of the people — for work, for genuinely affordable housing and for an end to individual lives increasingly locked into credit and debt — before the greed of banks and corporations, it is surely time that new forms of dissent are devised.

What is needed are new movements to challenge what, over the last 30 years — but particular since the global financial crash of 2008, for which bankers, economists and politicians were entirely responsible — has become an ever more unequal society, enriching the already rich, and, on a daily basis, driving more and more ordinary people — working, or unfortunate enough to be unemployed or disabled — into ever more precarious situations, up to and including outright poverty.

As the solstice sun shines, it’s time for dissent to make a comeback, 30 years after the last Stonehenge Free Festival, which, lest we forget, took place during the Miners’ Strike, the defining act of state violence against workers’ dissent in the whole of Margaret Thatcher’s wretched 11-year premiership.

Note: For reflections on Stonehenge and the summer solstice, see Stonehenge and the summer solstice: past and present, It’s 25 Years Since The Last Stonehenge Free Festival, 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?, Stonehenge and the Summer Solstice: On the 28th Anniversary of the Last Free Festival, Check Out “Festivals Britannia” and Memories of Youth and the Need for Dissent on the 29th Anniversary of the last Stonehenge Free Festival.

For more on the Beanfield, see my articles, In the Guardian: Remembering the Battle of the Beanfield, which provides excerpts from The Battle of the Beanfield (and see the Guardian article here), The Battle of the Beanfield 25th Anniversary: An Interview with Phil Shakesby, aka Phil the Beer, a prominent traveller who died four years ago, Remember the Battle of the Beanfield: It’s the 27th Anniversary Today of Thatcher’s Brutal Suppression of Traveller Society, 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, Back in Print: The Battle of the Beanfield, Marking Margaret Thatcher’s Destruction of Britain’s Travellers and It’s 29 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield, and the World Has Changed Immeasurably.

Also see my article on Margaret Thatcher’s death, “Kindness is Better than Greed”: Photos, and a Response to Margaret Thatcher on the Day of Her Funeral.

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, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

20 Responses

  1. Mark Erickson says...

    Great post. Do you know if either of these books are used in college – sorry, university – classes?
    It should be youth unemployment.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Mark,
    Great to hear from you. Without wishing to sound cynical about the world, I doubt that my books are used in any university classes – although actually, thinking about it, they are conceivably on a few reading lists.
    Thanks also for correcting my typo!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Digger Dive wrote:

    Wonderful piece highlighting an important part of our History (!) But I have to agree..what is the current generation doing? I see that the bus to go in on charged £10 per person ..how many seats on the bus? I have this vision of the Ghosts of great organisers harassing the bus company for a “tax”!!!!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Digger Dive, for the supportive words. So yes, a bus that costs a tenner – just to confirm that the new mantra of existence is “breathe in, breathe out, spend money, breathe in, breathe out, spend money” (repeat until death).

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Sharing this, Andy. Lots of Midsummer Festivities here too.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Ah yes, I’ve been told that midsummer’s a big thing in Sweden, George. A couple of Australian friends went there a few years ago, and brought back some great stories and wonderful photos.

  7. will latham says...

    congratulation on keeping stories alive that the authorities would have us forget.I was a volunter in Salisbury at many gatherings helping TAT with welfare.We saw the Peace Convoy go round the ring road, we waved,they waved back and went off into the country but we heard no more from them -they had been ambushed and no news came back to us.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Will. I’m happy to try and keep these stories alive. They’re part of our history, and the longer time goes on, the more alarming it seems to me that there are powerful forces at work trying to make us forget, trying to make young people regard anything before the 21st century, for example, as ancient history and something not worth thinking about or finding out about. And this from people who, in many cases, can trace their ancestors back 1000 years!

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Mathew Rogue Element Sandoval wrote:

    I really do need to read your book. I feel like we are kindred spirits – writing about Gitmo while also being concerned with cultural practices and dissent more broadly. Andy, you are a fascinating dude!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Mathew. I think it’s easy to see how empathy for outsiders, despised outsiders, has informed my work, and how I moved from Stonehenge and UK civil liberties to Guantanamo and human rights. And yes, what I see as the need for dissent is of perennial importance to me, and the lack of it is something that troubles me on an almost daily basis, I would say. I seem to be living in a world where far too many people are not asking fundamental questions. They are disillusioned by politicians, but they are consumers absolutely in love with the myriad entertainments provided by corporations, and sold to them via deep and cynical advertising and marketing, and they fail to see that the corporate structure, and capitalism’s insatiable need for ever greater profits, are all part of the same problem.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Nadeem Khan wrote:

    Dissent is purposely ignored by the mainstream media, dissenters have no voice. Any act that tries to amplify the voice is labelled as extremism and given all the trappings and negative coverage associated with it.

    We’re all domestic extremists now.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Very well put, Nadeem. Thank you.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Meena B Sharma wrote:

    Excellent article Andy..shared!

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Meena. Great to hear from you.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Meena B Sharma wrote:

    Always try to keep up with your posts Andy

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Meena. That’s lovely to hear.

  17. Thomas says...

    Dissent is only reported in the mainstream press when it’s violent.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that’s a good way of putting it, Thomas. I normally think of the mainstream media ignoring protest unless it’s violent, but you’re right – it’s dissent that they don’t want to report.
    A case in point is the media blackout of the People’s Assembly national demonstration against austerity on Saturday, and the 50,000 people (at least) who marched and partied in central London. I wasn’t able to make it along, but I see from social media responses that it was barely covered in the mainstream media. The Guardian, for example, had pretty cursory coverage: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/jun/21/protest-march-austerity-london-russell-brand-peoples-assembly
    And the only broadcaster interested appears to have been RT: http://rt.com/news/167532-uk-anti-austerity-march/

  19. Damo says...

    We are in the age of indifference people don’t care or so it seems I think there is something bubbling away an uprising perhaps hopefully by the young as they see that we all can’t go on this way that if we do we’re future less let’s hope so

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Damo. Yes, there is certainly large-scale discontent bubbling away, just no obvious way for it to manifest itself. Established politics clearly can’t offer a solution, as can be seen by the Parliamentary Labour Party’s failure to establish a convincing counter-narrative to the Tories, so I suppose we need to wonder what will happen after next year’s General Election. But that makes me very nervous, I have to confess. By now there ought to be no way that the Tories can get back in again, but alarmingly that’s not certain. It’s hard to stay buoyant in the face of such an unpromising political situation.

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