It’s 33 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield: Is It Now Ancient History, in a UK Obsessed with Housing Exploitation and Nationalist Isolation?

1.6.18

The Observer's front cover, the day after the Battle of the Beanfield, June 2, 1985, featuring a report by Nick Davies, one of the few journalists to have witnessed the horrendous state violence on the day.Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist, commentator and activist.

 

Please also note that my books The Battle of the Beanfield and Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion, dealing with the topics discussed in this article, are still in print and available to buy from me. And please also feel free to check out the music of my band The Four Fathers.

For anyone attuned to the currents of modern British history, today, June 1, has a baleful resonance.

33 years ago, on June 1, 1985, the full weight of the state — Margaret Thatcher’s state — descended on a convoy of vehicles in a field in Wiltshire, in a one-sided confrontation in which around 420 travellers — New Age travellers, as they were sometimes referred to at the time — were attacked with serious and almost entirely unprovoked violence by 1,400 police from six counties and the MoD, armed with truncheons and riot shields. 

The violence that took place that day was witnessed by few media outlets, most of which had been told to stay away, as the state prepared to deal with the latest “enemy within,” so designated by Margaret Thatcher, drunk on power, who, over the previous year, had dealt a crippling blow to Britain’s mining industry, and was now sending her paramilitarised police force out to Wiltshire to do the same to a small group of anarchists, self-styled modern gypsies, green activists and peace protestors. 

The state’s excuse for the violence of June 1, 1985 was that the convoy was travelling to Stonehenge to set up what would have been the 12th free festival in the fields opposite the ancient sun temple, and had ignored an injunction preventing them from doing so.

The Stonehenge Free Festival, started in the first flush of widespread counter-cultural dissent in the UK in the early 1970s, which also saw a civil servant prankster, Bill ‘Ubi’ Dwyer, set up the Windsor Free Festival in the Queen’s backyard, had grown throughout the late 70s and into the 80s from its humble origins as the brainchild of another eccentric individual, Wally Hope, into a month-long anarchic gathering, attracting tens of thousands of people, the centrepiece of a season of free festivals that was an alternative economy for the core members of the travelling community.

Although the festivals’ alleged desecration of Stonehenge and its surroundings was Margaret Thatcher’s excuse for decommissioning the convoy with such violence on June 1, 1985, there were other, more significant reasons that the establishment, for the most part, didn’t want to discuss: the fact that the travellers’ movement consisted largely of young people who had bought old vehicles cheaply and had taken to the road because of chronic unemployment in Thatcher’s Britain; the fact that the travellers’ very existence provided a potent challenge to long-standing notions of land ownership in the UK; and the inconvenient truth that the travellers were also engaged in challenging the British state’s approach to militarism and the environment. 

In the early 80s, a contingent of travellers — the Peace Convoy — had supported the women of Greenham Common, who set up a permanent women’s peace camp to oppose Thatcher’s plans to allow the US to establish a cruise missile base on UK soil, at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire. At the same time, a second peace camp was also established at RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire, where plans were announced for a second cruise missile base. In the summer of 1984, travellers joined that peace camp, creating the Rainbow Village, consisting of a mixture of environmental activists, travellers and Quakers. Environmentalism, alternative energy and opposition to nuclear power were also key elements of the ethos of the time, widely embraced by the travellers.

Thatcher recognised that the state couldn’t be seen to inflict mass physical violence on the women of Greenham Common, but the peace camp at Molesworth included men, and so, on February 6, 1985, 1,500 troops, the largest peacetime mobilisation of troops in modern British history (symbolically led by the defense secretary Michael Heseltine) evicted the camp. The travellers were subsequently harried from site to site across southern England until the final showdown at the Beanfield. 

Traumatised, and with their homes — their vehicles — destroyed, the Stonehenge convoy never recovered from the Beanfield, and an annual militarised exclusion zone around Stonehenge prevented the revival of the free festival, but elsewhere Thatcher underestimated the counter-cultural spirit of 1980s Britain, as a new recreational drug, Ecstasy, arrived on the scene, fuelling a brand-new youth movement, the rave scene, which rapidly began attracting millions of people to illegal parties in warehouses and fields across the country, in defiance of new laws passed after the Beanfield, in the Public Order Act of 1986, which were designed to impose restrictions on “public assemblies.”

Raves and road protests

Prevented from travelling freely around the country, would-be dissenters also came up with a creative response that the state never foresaw. Instead of travelling around, which was fraught with problems, they stayed in one place, targetting road expansion projects that were characterised as an assault on the spirit of the land, and setting up protest camps, beginning with Twyford Down in 1992, where an extension to the M3 was planned, and, in many ways, culminating in 1996 with massive resistance to the nine miles of the A34 Newbury bypass in Berkshire. Along the way, there was huge resistance to the M11 Link Road in east London, which destroyed numerous streets and public spaces, and although almost all the resistance movements failed to prevent the new roads from being built, the government largely abandoned its road expansion plans in November 1995, cancelling 300 planned projects.

An amazing aerial photo of the Castlemorton festival in May 1992.As dissent grew, the remains of the traveller movement mixed with the rave scene, creating hybrid events that culminated in the symbolic revival of the Stonehenge spirit at Castlemorton Common in Worcestershire over the Whit bank holiday weekend in May 1992, a counter-cultural melting pot attended by tens of thousands of people. 

The road protest movement also drew from the rave scene’s energy, with such notable creations as Reclaim the Streets, which took back roads as public spaces, and, on one memorable occasion in July 1996, occupied the M41 motorway in west London, with activists drilling holes in the tarmac and planting trees.

The response to Castlemorton in particular was the Criminal Justice Act of 1994, which further clamped down on trespass and the right of assembly. The heavy-handed legislation, which, notoriously, gave the police powers to shut down events featuring music “characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”, undermined the rave scene, and, more depressingly, legitimised its wholesale commercialisation, leading to what Vice magazine, in an article on the Beanfield in 2015, described as paving the way for “your V Festivals, ‘Morning Gloryville’ raves and nightclubs that charge £20 on the door and £5 for a bottle of water.” 

Nevertheless, dissent remained wilfully unstifled, as the anti-globalisation movement, which arose in response to the rise of transnational capitalism, and, of course, brought people together across national borders, became the focus for riotous dissent in the late 90s, with one notorious day of action, the Global Carnival Against Capital, on Friday June 18, 1999 (also known as J18), seeing the mass occupation of the City of London alongside other events around the world.

However, by 2001, unfortunately, the tide was turning. In Genoa, in July 2001, Italian police murdered a protestor, and just two months later, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 changed the human rights and civil liberties landscape enormously, effectively neutering violent or threatening dissent of any kind, and providing cover not only for an enforced culture of general obedience, but also for the creation of a cynical climate of fear, endlessly reinforced via the compliant mainstream media.

The shallow, materialistic new world order

With the quelling of dissent, the main preoccupation of the new cross-party power establishments in the West, including, in particular, the Labour Party in the UK (the New Labour government of Tony Blair) was to rewrite the basis of existence in what, in many ways, must be seen as the ultimate fulfilment of Margaret Thatcher’s dream: one with a neutered underclass, with everything done as much as possible to enable the rich to get richer, and with shallow materialism and greed as the drivers of the economy, and the only arbiters of value and success in society as a whole. 

From when travellers broke out of the despair of working class unemployment in the 1980s, this blunt new world of rapacious capitalism has not only reinforced joblessness, it has also involved seizing people’s homes through economic strangulation or actual physical destruction, creating a housing bubble that has now been in existence, propped up by successive governments and the banks, for 20 years, with only one minor blip following the global financial crash of 2008, when criminal bankers crashed the economy, and had to be bailed out by their victims.

Accompanying the strangling of individuals via rents and mortgages, the establishment is also physically destroying social housing, levelling council estates to replace them with unaffordable properties bought up by foreign investors, and determined to keep the poorer half of society so suppressed and so economically challenged that they can’t even think about unrest, let alone engage in it.

And, accompanying this economic rape, the establishment has also been engaged, for most of the time since the last exuberance of widespread dissent in the 1990s, with efforts to exterminate any notion of class consciousness, replacing it instead with misplaced anger at the EU, and dangerous hostility towards immigrants. 

The result has been disturbingly successful — the EU referendum in June 2016, in which a small majority of those who could be bothered to vote called for us to leave the EU in a referendum that was only advisory but that has since been treated as “the will of the people” by deranged isolationist Tories and the mostly complicit mainstream media. Predictably, accompanying this result, the UK has also seen an attendant rise in racism and xenophobia. 

Every EU national I meet has been subjected to abuse — verbal or otherwise — since the referendum, and the isolationist vitriol seems to know no limits. Islamophobia, ever-present since 9/11, remains ramped up, permanently reinforced by the media, traditional racism is ever-prevalent through the general flint-heartedness towards the victims of the greatest humanitarian crisis in our lifetimes — a tsunami of refugees, mostly created by our own foreign policy decisions, and our ever-rapacious economic exploitation of weaker economies — and even skin colour is no longer a barrier to prejudice, with Eastern Europeans targeted just as ruthlessly as traditional non-white victims of racism. 

Racism has never been even vaguely suppressed, but 33 years ago, at the time of the travellers’ movement, the free festival scene and the Battle of the Beanfield, there were major cultural movements against it, as well for women’s rights, and for gay rights as well, and I regard the progress made on all three fronts as the three great achievements in the lifetimes of those of us who grew up between the late 60s and the 1980s. 

At the time of punk, we were also listening to militant roots reggae music, and British reggae bands like Steel Pulse and Misty in Roots were very much part of the festival scene, just as dub music became, essentially, part of the very DNA of the music of the counter-culture.

I wouldn’t want to say that all music has subsequently been neutered, but much of it has, sadly, as materialism, wealth and status have become the dominant cultural indicators of success. Although it’s invigorating to see a grime artist like Stormzy challenge the government for its inaction regarding last June’s Grenfell Tower fire at this year’s Brit Awards, in general it’s fair to say, I think, that consumption has replaced revolt, and selfishness has replaced solidarity.

From today’s perspective, not only do free mass gatherings now seem inconceivable, as the festival season gets underway, with its multitude of commercial festivals for those with money (often literally taking place in fortresses erected specifically to keep everyone else out), but resistance to the type of exclusion that prompted people to get on the road in the 70s and 80s also seems remote, even as those in social housing have their homes knocked down, and more and more people are forced into the arms of private landlords, who are free to exploit them with almost no restraints whatsoever on their greed or their behaviour.

Rise up!

Surely something of the spirit of dissent still exists, to rise up if the current culture of ever-increasing inequality and class cleansing continues, as it seems certain to do if it continues to meet no resistance. For decades, we fought back, tooth and nail, against our exploiters and our destroyers — oppressors from the ruling class in our own country, and from those who, like Margaret Thatcher, despised the working class, without being so gullible that we would divert our energy onto invented enemies from elsewhere. Nothing has fundamentally changed, except we have been encouraged to forget ourselves, and to look everywhere except where we should to see who is responsible for the state of the world, and the increasingly parlous state of the UK. 

Can we wake up, and soon? I certainly hope so. As Shelley wrote in ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, written in 1819 after the Peterloo Massacre, in which 15 people were killed by the state:

Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many — they are few!

If you haven’t yet seen it, do watch ‘Operation Solstice’, the 1991 documentary about the Battle of the Beanfield, and the subsequent trial, directed by Gareth Morris and Neil Goodwin:

Note: For more on the Beanfield, see my 2009 article for the GuardianRemember the Battle of the Beanfield, and my accompanying article, In the Guardian: Remembering the Battle of the Beanfield, which provides excerpts from The Battle of the Beanfield. Also see The Battle of the Beanfield 25th Anniversary: An Interview with Phil Shakesby, aka Phil the Beer, a prominent traveller who died six years ago, Remember the Battle of the Beanfield: It’s the 27th Anniversary Today of Thatcher’s Brutal Suppression of Traveller SocietyRadio: On Eve of Summer Solstice at Stonehenge, Andy Worthington Discusses the Battle of the Beanfield and Dissent in the UKIt’s 28 Years Since Margaret Thatcher Crushed Travellers at the Battle of the BeanfieldBack in Print: The Battle of the Beanfield, Marking Margaret Thatcher’s Destruction of Britain’s TravellersIt’s 29 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield, and the World Has Changed ImmeasurablyIt’s 30 Years Since Margaret Thatcher Trashed the Travellers’ Movement at the Battle of the BeanfieldIt’s Now 31 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield: Where is the Spirit of Dissent in the UK Today? and, most recently, Never Trust the Tories: It’s 32 Years Today Since the Intolerable Brutality of the Battle of the Beanfield.

For my previous reflections on Stonehenge and the summer solstice from 2008 to 2015, see Stonehenge and the summer solstice: past and presentIt’s 25 Years Since The Last Stonehenge Free FestivalStonehenge Summer Solstice 2010: Remembering the Battle of the BeanfieldRIP Sid Rawle, Land Reformer, Free Festival Pioneer, Stonehenge StalwartHappy 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”Memories of Youth and the Need for Dissent on the 29th Anniversary of the last Stonehenge Free Festival30 Years On from the Last Stonehenge Free Festival, Where is the Spirit of Dissent?Stonehenge and the Summer Solstice, 30 Years After the Battle of the Beanfield and Summer Solstice 2017: Reflections on Free Festivals and the Pagan Year 33 Years After the Last Stonehenge Festival.

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.

The front cover of "The Battle of the Beanfield," edited by Andy Worthington.Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in 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), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

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14 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    33 years ago today, the jackboot of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain stamped repeatedly on the face of dissent at the Battle of the Beanfield, when 1,400 police from six counties and the MoD violently decommissioned a convoy of travellers and environmental activists travelling to Stonehenge to set up what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival, an extraordinary anarchic realisation of an alternative community to the one championed by the Tories and the British establishment. In my article, I remember the terrible events of that day, but I also celebrate the fact that dissent refused to be quelled, as the rave scene and road protest movement emerged to continue to make life difficult for the Tories.
    However, I also lament how much of the spirit of dissent has been quelled this millennium, as materialism, wealth and status have become the sole arbiters of value in society, civil liberties have been cynically suppressed post-9/11, racism and isolationism have massively increased, and yet the poorer half of society is at least as oppressed as under Thatcher in the 1980s, when people first took to the road in large numbers to resist the dead-end nature of life under a capitalist system that, at the time, was merely broken, but is now galactically dysfunctional. When, if ever, I ask, will we rise up in significant numbers?

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Susanna Lafond wrote:

    Well said Andy – ‘celebrate and lament’

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Susanna. Good to hear from you. I’m really feeling how long ago those times were, this year, in large part, I think, because of how generally uninspiring the state of dissent is in the mean, controlled, irritatingly dull and materialistic times we currently find ourselves living in.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    David Barlow wrote:

    If you haven’t heard of the Battle of the Beanfiled, you should have done. Basically, a UK Cop Army attacking families. Just like Hillsborough this needs an enquiry as does The Battle of Orgreave.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, well said, David. Orgreave and Beanfield inquiries definitely needed!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Ross Clive Kennedy wrote:

    There are more people living in vehicles now than ever due to a structural/strategic housing shortage and there are more festivals now than ever before….mutate and survive.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Interesting, Ross. It’s a good point to mention that people are getting creative because of the housing crisis. I also acknowledge that there are more festivals than ever before, but it disappoints me that so many of them are so firmly entrenched within the capitalist system in general and are not asking bigger questions about what life might be about beyond mere hedonism and consumerism.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Zoe Young wrote:

    Political policing suppressed dissent with #spycops undermining progressive movements since ’68

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, the revelations over the years of the infiltration of protest movements by spy cops has been genuinely quite shocking, Zoe. Those wanting to know more can check this out: https://jacobinmag.com/2018/04/uk-infiltration-secret-police-mi5-special-branch-undercover

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Neil Goodwin wrote:

    Not forgetting Broadwater farm, plus an attack against Manchester’s students – also 1985. Plus the emergence of the ACPO handbook on policing. 1984 / 85 was the birth of military-style policing on mainland Britain. Something that had been developing in Northern Ireland for some time. Thatcher’s boot boys worked their way through all manner of minorities and unions, bringing the nation into line.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    But they faced considerable resistance, Neil, like at Claremont Road, until they succeeded in changing the political climate, and that was the insidious success story of Tony Blair and the tabloid media over the last 20 years, with Cameron and Osborne’s cynical austerity program as the icing on the cake. The establishment doesn’t have to waste time and resources policing people when they can be persuaded to neuter themselves – Royal weddings, reality TV, Brexit, Islamophobia, the hatred of immigrants. It’s all going on in the sleepy, self-deluded Britain of 2018 …

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Brigid Mary Oates wrote:

    Thank you what a busy year it was for the “iron lady”…. you’d think we’ve been battered that much we’d be having these buggers up an away ..
    But Thatcher encouraged the me me me perspective … it’s good to look back and stay focused xx

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Brigid. I’m thinking that we need a widespread reminder that, as a 19th century American saying has it, “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    And, following up on comments 8 and 9, above:

    Lush are also running a campaign – and getting a lot of flak from those who brook no criticism of the establishment, however badly its representatives behave: https://uk.lush.com/article/exposing-spy-who-loved-me

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Andy Worthington

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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