“First They Came for the Travellers”: Priti Patel’s Chilling Attack on Britain’s Travelling Communities

A composite image of the home secretary Priti Patel and a Gypsy caravan.

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I’ve chosen my headline with care, in response to the news that the home secretary, Priti Patel, has launched a horrible attack on Britain’s travelling community, suggesting that the police should be able to immediately confiscate the vehicle of “anyone whom they suspect to be trespassing on land with the purpose of residing on it”, and announcing her intention to “test the appetite to go further” than any previous proposals for dealing with Gypsies and travellers.

As George Monbiot explained in an article for the Guardian on Wednesday, “Until successive Conservative governments began working on it, trespass was a civil and trivial matter. Now it is treated as a crime so serious that on mere suspicion you can lose your home.” Monbiot added, “The government’s proposal, criminalising the use of any place without planning permission for Roma and Travellers to stop, would extinguish the travelling life.” 

“First they came for the travellers” alludes to the famous poem by the German pastor Martin Niemöller with reference to the Nazis, which begins, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a socialist”, and continues with reference to trade unionists and Jews, and ending, “Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

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34 Years On from the Battle of the Beanfield, Is Widespread Environmental Dissent Conceivable?

A photo from the Battle of the Beanfield on June 1, 1985, when the government of Margaret Thatcher violently decommissioned a convoy trying to get to Stonehenge to set up what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival.

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It’s 34 long years since the boot of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain crushed one of the most visible demonstrations of counter-cultural dissent in the UK via a brutal demonstration of the violence of the establishment at what became known as the Battle of the Beanfield, when 1,400 police — from six counties and the MoD — shut down a vastly outnumbered convoy of nomadic new age travellers, anarchists, environmental activists and free festival stalwarts as they attempted to get to Stonehenge to establish what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival.

From humble origins in 1974, the festival grew — reflecting massive discontent in Thatcher’s Britain, where unemployment was at an all-time high in the early ‘80s — so that by the time it was suppressed, tens of thousands of people, for the whole of June, set up a makeshift settlement, the size of a small town, in the fields opposite Stonehenge. 

Drug use was rife, as was acid rock music, while the festival’s regulars, who took part in a circuit of free festivals in England and Wales from May to September, tried to get by via the creation of a low-level, low-impact economy that, like their decision to take to the road in old vehicles rather than stagnating on the dole in towns and cities without jobs, fundamentally challenged the state’s insistence that nomadic activities were reserved solely for Gypsies, who, themselves, have a long history of persecution, as settled people generally, it seems, despise nomadic people. 

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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?

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Never Trust the Tories: It’s 32 Years Today Since the Intolerable Brutality of the Battle of the Beanfield

'Beanfield', a 2009 work by Banksy, photographed in MOCO Museum in Amsterdam, where it is on display until August 2017 (photo via the website Rajah's 2 Cents).Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist and commentator.





 

Today, June 1, the cultural nostalgia industry — a burgeoning movement that seeks safe havens in the past, where the reality of the here and now can be denied — is in overdrive, marking the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles’ LP, ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’ Cue rhapsodic reflections on the meaning of “the summer of love,” and, presumably, very few people talking about how it’s not the Beatles’ best or more significant album, and, more importantly, “the summer of love” isn’t something to wheel out like a colourful aged relative.

If there is, at some level, a rainbow-hued joy to recollections of the time, this should reasonably be tempered with an awareness that the hippie movement was not just about fashion and flowers; it was also tied into the movement against the Vietnam War in America, to movements of resistance to the status quo (whether violent or non-violent), and to profound questions about culture, love, relationships, business and our place in the world that often led to conflicting and confused responses, in which irresponsibility played a part as well as idealism.

The rather more superficial aspect of the 60s — the fashion and flowers — led in turn to what I see as the most defining betrayal of the hope and desire for change that drove much of the agitation of the time: the sidelining of the commitment to political resistance — a largely communal affair — through the self-obsession of self-improvement: those millions of journeys to self-discovery that, absorbed and reinterpreted by the voracious mainstream of capitalism, have become nothing more than a vain sense of entitlement, typified by L’Oreal’s “Because You’re Worth It” tagline, but apparent everywhere, in the preening, pampering world of materialistic self-worth. Read the rest of this entry »

The Dale Farm Eviction: How Racism Against Gypsies and Travellers Grips Modern-Day Britain

As the Gypsy and Traveller community at Dale Farm in Essex continues its long struggle against eviction with another High Court hearing today, seeking a judicial review on a number of grounds, including the absolutely crucial basis that it is “disproportionate” to remove a family from their home when no suitable alternative accommodation exists, a YouGov poll reveals that two-thirds of those asked believe that it is appropriate for Basildon Council to spend £18 million on evicting around 400 people (86 families, including many children) from land they own, but on which they were not given permission to build permanent residences by the council.

Many of those who support the eviction claim to believe that spending £18 million that surely could be spent more usefully elsewhere in the Basildon area is appropriate, because the site the Dale Farm residents own in on green belt land (albeit on the site of a former scrap yard) and it is a necessary principle.

There is some truth in this, to the extent that British people across the political spectrum are obsessed with protecting green belt land from anyone developing it — and not just Gypsies and Travellers — but I find it impossible not to detect the stench of hypocrisy emanating from those taking time out of their otherwise busy lives to obsess about the Dale Farm residents, as I cannot conceive of this happening if the men, women and children to be evicted — at £45,000 a head —  were not Travellers and Gypsies.

Racism towards Gypsies is something that settled communities like to pretend doesn’t exist, but it remains virulent  and disgraceful, and is clearly at the heart of the conflict over Dale Farm. Read the rest of this entry »

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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 (The State of London).
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