“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.”

Read the rest of this entry »

The War on Social Housing – on the Centenary of the Addison Act That Launched the Creation of Large-Scale Council Housing

The unnecessary destruction of Robin Hood Gardens Estate in Poplar, in east London, March 2018, to make way for a new private development, Blackwall Reach (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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Today, July 31, is the centenary of the first Housing and Town Planning Act (widely known as the Addison Act), which was introduced by the Liberal politician Christopher Addison, as part of David Lloyd George’s coalition government following the First World War, to provide Britain’s first major council housing programme, as John Boughton, the author of Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing, explained in an article published yesterday in the Guardian.

Boughton explained how, when Addison “introduced his flagship housing bill to the House of Commons in April 1919”, he spoke of its “utmost importance, from the point of view not only of the physical wellbeing of our people, but of our social stability and industrial content.”

“As we celebrate the centenary of council housing”, Boughton noted, “this sentiment is not lost in the context of the current housing crisis. From the rise in expensive, precarious and often poor-quality private renting to the dwindling dream of home-ownership, it is fuelling discontent. This escalating crisis means that increasing numbers of people are now forced to deal with the painful consequences of the country’s inability to provide such a basic human need — a stable, affordable home.”

Read the rest of this entry »

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. 

Read the rest of this entry »

Video: The Battle of the Beanfield, Free Festivals and Traveller History with Andy Worthington on Bristol Community Radio

Is the UK on the verge of a second traveller revolution? A question posed in a Bristol Community Radio show in August 2018, featuring Andy Worthington and New Age Traveller Sean in discussion with Tony Gosling (Photo: Alan Lodge).Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist, commentator and activist.




 

Last week I was in Bristol for a screening of ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, the new documentary film about the cynical destruction of council estates, and residents’ brave resistance to the destruction of their homes, which I narrate. The screening was at the People’s Republic of Stoke Croft, a pioneering community space in a once-neglected area of Bristol that has now started to be devoured by the insatiable profiteers of the “regeneration” industry. My article about the screening is here, and a brief report about the screening is here, and while I was there I was also interviewed by Tony Gosling for Bristol Community Radio, which is based in the PRSC complex.

Tony and I have known each other for many years, through a shared interest in Britain’s counter-culture, and it was great to take part in his politics show for the station as the author of two very relevant books, Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. Although we discussed the film, that interview has not yet been broadcast, because Tony’s primary focus was on discussing the traveller community of the 1970s and 80s, the free festival scene, focused particularly on Stonehenge and Glastonbury, and the Battle of the Beanfield, on June 1, 1985, when, with Margaret Thatcher’s blessing, 1,400 police from six counties and the MoD violently decommissioned the convoy of vehicles — containing men, women and children — that was en route to Stonehenge to establish what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival.

To discuss the above, Tony had also contacted Sean, a veteran traveller, who still lives in a vehicle, and still upholds the DiY values of that time. We had a wonderful discussion over 40 minutes, which Tony has put on YouTube, illustrated with traveller photos by Alan Lodge, and which I’ve cross-posted below. Read the rest of this entry »

Thoughts on Stonehenge and the Summer Solstice 2018: Has the Dominant Materialism Killed Some Magic in the World?

A photo of the summer solstice sunrise at Stonehenge on the morning of June 21, 2018. In a very modern manner, it was taken by a police drone.Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist, commentator and activist.




 

So the sun shone this morning, and it looked like a lovely sunrise at Stonehenge on the summer solstice. According to the BBC, however, the number of attendees was just 9,500, considerably less than in some years since Managed Open Access to the great temple on Salisbury Plain was reintroduced in 2000, after 16 years in which access to Stonehenge on the summer solstice was prevented through the existence of a military-style exclusion zone.

In part, this was due to the solstice dawn taking place on a Thursday morning. Attendee numbers are highest when it falls on a weekend, but other factors may also have been involved. It now costs £15 to park a vehicle for the solstice — “£15 per car, live-in vehicle and non-commercial minibus (up to 19 seats)”, as English Heritage describe it — and security has been ramped up in the last two years, primarily, it seems, because of the government’s delight in keeping us in a perpetual state of fear — and racist fear, to boot — by pretending that every aspect of our lives is subject to a potential terrorist threat, even the summer solstice at Stonehenge.

“As with last year’s event”, the BBC explained, “Wiltshire Police confirmed it had stepped up security with armed police on patrol.” Yes, that’s right. Armed police at Stonehenge. What a horrible and unnecessary policy. Supt. Dave Minty, Wiltshire Police’s overnight commander, conceding that there had been no trouble at all, and that “behaviour at the stones was ‘brilliant’, with no arrests made”, nevertheless said of the security situation, “People seem to have adapted really well to the heightened level of security and they’ve been really patient with it.” Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Social Cleansing and the Destruction of Council Estates Exposed at Screening of ‘Dispossession’ by Endangered New Cross Residents

The Achilles fanzine, put together by resident Lilah Francis, from the area threatened with demolition by Lewisham Council, and some campaign badges (Photo: Andy Worthington).Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist and commentator.





 

On Saturday, I went to the New Cross Learning Centre — a community-run former library in New Cross — for a screening of ‘Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle’, a new documentary about Britain’s housing crisis directed by Paul Sng, who is from New Cross (and is the director of ‘Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain’). The screening was organised by the residents of the Achilles Street area, whose homes are threatened by Lewisham Council, which wants to knock them all down, and build shiny new replacements. The area affected runs between New Cross Road and Fordham Park (from south to north), and between Clifton Rise and Pagnell Street (from west to east), and there are 87 homes (with 33 leaseholders), and around 20 businesses (along New Cross Road and down Clifton Rise).

Lewisham Council claims, in its most recent consultation document, from February this year, that “[a]ll current council tenants who wish to stay in the new development will be able to do so with the same rent levels and tenancy conditions that they have today,” and that “[a]ny resident leaseholder who wishes to will be able to remain in home ownership on the new development.”

This sounds reassuring, but the recent history of regeneration projects — both in London and elsewhere in the country — is that councils and developers lie to tenants and leaseholders, to get them to agree to regeneration under terms that are not then honoured. Instead, tenants are evicted and their homes demolished, and they never get to return, and leaseholders are offered derisory amounts for the homes that, ironically, they bought under Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy, which is insufficient for them to buy a replacement property in the area, leading to their exodus in addition to that of the former tenants. Read the rest of this entry »

Summer Solstice 2017: Reflections on Free Festivals and the Pagan Year 33 Years After the Last Stonehenge Festival

An aerial view of the Stonehenge Free Festival in 1984, liberated from the police during the subsequent trial.Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist and commentator.





 

My books Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield are still in print, and please also feel free to check out the music of my band The Four Fathers.

Back in 1983, as a 20-year old student, I had a life-changing experience when a friend of mine initiated a visit to the Stonehenge Free Festival, an anarchic experiment in leaderless living that occupied the fields opposite Stonehenge for the whole of June every year. The festival had grown from a small occupation in 1974, and by 1984 (when I visited again) became a monster — one with a darkness that reflected the darkness that gripped the whole of the UK that year, as Margaret Thatcher crushed the miners and, metaphorically, razed the country to the ground like a medieval conqueror.

I remember the 1983 festival with a great fondness — the elven people selling magic mushrooms from a barrel for next to nothing, the wailing of acid rock bands, the festivals’ thoroughfares, like ancient tracks of baked earth, where the cries of “acid, speed, hot knives” rang though the sultry air. Off the beaten track, travellers set up impromptu cafes beside their colourfully-painted trucks and coaches, unaware that, just two years later, on June 1, 1985, some of those same vehicles would be violently decommissioned at the Battle of the Beanfield, when Thatcher, following her destruction of Britain’s mining industry, set about destroying Britain’s traveller community, which, during her tenure as Prime Minister, had grown as unemployment mushroomed, and life on the road seemed to provide an appealing alternative.

A festival circuit, running from May to October, had grown up with this new movement, with Stonehenge at its centre. Michael Eavis’s Glastonbury Festival was also connected to it, as were numerous smaller festivals, as well as other events focused on environmental protest, especially against nuclear weapons and nuclear power. The travellers’ most prominent manifestation, the Peace Convoy, had visited Greenham Common, site of the famous women’s peace camp opposed to the establishment of US-owned and -controlled cruise missiles, in 1982, and in the summer of 1984 established a second peace camp at Molesworth in Cambridgeshire, the intended second cruise missile base after Greenham Common. Read the rest of this entry »

Video: Andy Worthington’s Band The Four Fathers Play ‘Stand Down Theresa’, An Updated Version of The Beat’s ‘Stand Down Margaret’

A screenshot from the video of The Four Fathers playing 'Stand Down Theresa', a version of The Beat's protest classic, 'Stand Down Margaret.'When I was growing up in late 70s Britain, one of the great political anthems of the time — when we were not short of protest music from, to name but a few artists, the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Specials — was ‘Stand Down Margaret’ by The Beat, featured on their debut album, ‘I Just Can’t Stop It,’ which was released in 1980. Paired with Prince Buster’s ‘Whine and Grine,’ ‘Stand Down Margaret’ primarily featured a polite but wonderfully poetic and insistent message, asking Margaret Thatcher, who became Prime Minister the year before, to resign. As the song stated:

I see no joy, I see only sorrow
I see no chance of a bright new tomorrow
Stand down Margaret, stand down please
Stand down Margaret

Here’s Dave Wakeling of The Beat talking about the song in 2013 — and about Margaret Thatcher, about whom he said, “Most everything about Margaret Thatcher was pretend … a way for the privileged to secure themselves at the expense of everybody else.” And here’s fabulous footage of The Beat playing their “insurrectionary anthem” on children’s TV. 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 »

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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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