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.

While the “new age” steadily ate up almost everybody and everything, but so slowly that few realized that it had, in the end, infected almost everyone, so that David Cameron’s penchant for “chillaxing” was about as zeitgeisty as it was possible to imagine, the hippies’ more challenging manifesto — of permanent and meaningful social and political change — went underground, where its mix of revolutionaries, pioneers and hedonists can be clearly seen in the squatting movement of the late 60s and the 70s, part of which took to the road, particularly as the austerity of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain began to bite, setting up free festivals, establishing — at some level — a profoundly challenging notion of land reform by asserting the right to travel and stay anywhere, and also engaging in environmental activism, opposing the creation of US-owned nuclear weapons bases and nuclear power stations.

The heart of the travelling free festival community was Stonehenge, that ancient temple on Salisbury Plain whose meaning and purpose can never be definitively pinned down by the establishment, because its creators left no written records. As dissidents and dissenters throughout the years had been drawn to Stonehenge, so too were the travellers, with a small gathering on and around the summer solstice in 1974 mutating, by 1984, into a gathering the size of a large town that occupied the field opposite the stones for the whole of the month of June, and that was, at some profound level, both a threat and a challenge to the establishment.

Police violence at the Battle of the Beanfield, June 1, 1985 (Photo copyright Tim Malyon).On June 1, 1985, Margaret Thatcher and her government decided to bring this anarchy to an end. Aware that they would be able to sell the public a message that they were suppressing dirty, tooled-up subversives who posed a threat to the existence of decent society, Thatcher and her colleagues arranged for 1,400 police from six counties and the MoD to violently decommission a convoy of four to five hundred people — men, women and children — travelling in convoy to Stonehenge to set up what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival.

That violence was captured by only a few observers at the time — Nick Davies for the Observer, and Kim Sabido of ITN, who stated, to camera, in footage that was later removed, “What we – the ITN camera crew and myself as a reporter – have seen in the last 30 minutes here in this field has been some of the most brutal police treatment of people that I’ve witnessed in my entire career as a journalist. The number of people who have been hit by policemen, who have been clubbed whilst holding babies in their arms in coaches around this field, is yet to be counted.”

As a result of the Beanfield brutality, the Stonehenge festival was stopped, and a paramilitary exclusion zone was declared around Stonehenge every summer solstice  until the Law Lords finally ruled in 1999 that it was illegal, and the authorities were compelled to allow revellers into the stones, leading to a rather ironic situation whereby summer solstice during the festival years, when only a few hundred people made their way to the stones, has now become a party for tens of thousands of mainly young locals, who have none of the festival goers’ regard for leaving a site as they found it.

The cover of The Battle of the Beanfield, Andy Worthington's book about the dreadful events of June 1, 1985, collecting accounts fro those who were there on the day, along with contemporary analysis.In 2005, for the 20th anniversary of the Beanfield, I wrote a book, The Battle of the Beanfield, that is still in print, in which I attempted to tell the story via those who were there — in interviews, some from ‘Operation Solstice’, the 1991 documentary about the Beanfield, and in excerpts from the police log, booklets and articles from the time, and introductory and concluding chapters by myself and publisher Alan Dearling. The book followed on from my 2004 book, Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion, which compared and contrasted the establishment’s view of Stonehenge with that of its various unruly aficionados, and which was, as a result, a partial counter-cultural history of post-war Britain.

Although Thatcher didn’t succeed in destroying dissent in the UK, she crippled the travellers’ scene, not just through the Beanfield, but also through harrying actions in the years that followed, allied with tough legislation in the Public Order Act of 1986.

There were, however, some unpleasant surprises for her, as her efforts to crush the travelling community led to anti-road protestors — an unexpected offshoot of the travellers’ movement — setting up permanent camps instead, and resisting road-building schemes with extraordinary ingenuity and enthusiasm. In addition, the acid house scene came out of nowhere, filling the countryside with millions of loved-up youngsters, and that scene soon attracted the remnants of the travellers’ movement. Over the May bank holiday weekend in 1992, the various tribes came together on Castlemorton Common, in Gloucestershire, for an exhilarating event that rivalled the last Stonehenge festival in size, but that, in turn, was followed by a backlash as the Criminal Justice Act of 1994 further restricted unapproved gatherings, giving the police the power to shut down gatherings of just two people, and took authoritarian steps towards the criminalisation of trespass. (My apologies, by the way, for missing the 25th anniversary of Castlemorton, although I note that only the BBC — here and here — seem to have remembered, plus this Italian website).

The Criminal Justice Act was a kick in the teeth for our freedoms, but dissent still continued, as the anti-globalisation movement dawned, with a huge protest in the City of London on June 18, 1999 (J18), and many events in major western cities. In the end, however, the freedom-eroding “war on terror” that was cynically declared after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the creation — most noticeable in the UK under Tony Blair — of a supposedly homogenised society devoted to materialism, in which everything is commodified and wealth is the only arbiter of any value, largely did away with large-scale dissent of the kind that could keep politicians awake at night.

The failure of the anti-war protests in 2003 — the largest in history — was a major blow to the hopes of protestors, of course, but people should always remember that giving up is what the authorities want. In the last 14 years, their dull corporate takeover of everything has only briefly been challenged — by the excitement of the Occupy movement of 2011-12, and, in the UK, the student protests of 2010 and the largely unfocused rioting of August 2011, to which the authorities responded with authoritarian overkill, and they must, as a result, be feeling reassured that they have permanently shut down disruptive dissent once and for all.

Reality, however, is not always so predictable. In the strangely shattered here and now, in which Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, and a slim majority of the British people who could be bothered to vote suicidally voted, for deranged and morbidly fantastical reasons, to leave the EU, the unrest continues.

Theresa May, the most unconvincing Prime Minster in my lifetime, and a vile authoritarian whose record would surely have made even Margaret Thatcher blanch, is crippled by her self-destructive devotion to the “will of the people” over Brexit, and is unable to engage with ordinary people to persuade them, in any way, that the Tories are anything more than butchers and would-be butchers of the poor. As a result, she is haemorrhaging support for the Tories in the run-up to next week’s General Election, whose result was supposed to be a thumping Tory victory.

I have no idea if our broken, hideously unfair “first past the post” system can get rid of the party who, in 2015, secured 50.9% of the seats with the votes of just 36.8% of those who could be bothered to vote (and just 24.4% of the total electorate), but those of us who recall the events of June 1, 1985 know that the Tories are never to be trusted, and, to be frank, nothing they have done in the 32 years since has given us any reason to trust them at all. In looking back over the last 32 years, it is also clear that, fundamentally, New Labour was a betrayal of the people, but the same cannot be said of Jeremy Corbyn, and it would be wonderful if, between them, the Labour Party, the SNP, the tainted but not-Tory Lib Dems, the Greens and others can kick out the Nasty Party that, 32 years ago, was ordering policemen to truncheon women and children in a field in Wiltshire, and, today, is telling old people it will sell their homes to pay for their social care, and telling EU nationals living and working here that they are nothing more than “bargaining chips” in the Tories’ ill-tempered negotiations with the EU over the terms of our national suicide.

Note: Banksy’s ‘Beanfield’ (2009) — shown at the top of this article — is on display at the MOCO Museum in Amsterdam until August 31, 2017, and the museum tells us that it “has not been on display since 2009,” and is “[a] very important canvas that characterises Banksy as an activist artist.” The photo is from the website Radjah’s 2 Cents.

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 Beanfield and It’s Now 31 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield: Where is the Spirit of Dissent in the UK Today?.

For reflections on Stonehenge and the summer solstice, 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 Festival, and articles from 2014 and 2015, 30 Years On from the Last Stonehenge Free Festival, Where is the Spirit of Dissent? and Stonehenge and the Summer Solstice, 30 Years After the Battle of the Beanfield.

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, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — 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.

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3 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    32 years ago today, Margaret Thatcher and her government, via 1,400 police from six counties and the MoD, violently decommissioned a convoy of men, women and children en route to Stonehenge to establish what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival, at what has become known as the Battle of the Beanfield. Fatal damage was done to the UK travellers’ movement, although the rave scene and road protest movement came out of nowhere to further challenge and undermine the Tories, and later the anti-globalisation movement challenged the status quo under Tony Blair. However, the clampdown on liberties in the post-9/11 “war on terror” and the corporate clampdown on as much of life as possible – with everything commodified, and huge effort expended in stifling dissent via politicians, the media and what passes as culture – means that the spirit of the 80s and 90s now seems more distant than ever, like a half-remembered dream. 32 years on, can we give the Tories a kicking at next week’s General Election, and can we find something of that lost spirit that used to animate us in opposition to the safe, dull establishment world in which money is – incorrectly – perceived as the only arbiter of value?

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    As I also wrote on Facebook:

    I’m hoping this is of interest to readers in general. In it, I look at how important dissent is, and how it survived Thatcher and the 80s, but how liberties were further stifled in the permanent “age of fear” sold by politicians in their “war on terror” and, most significantly, in the full-spectrum dominance of a corporate worldview, in which materialism is incessant, and almost every aspect of our lives is commodified. I ask if we can revive the glimpses of dissent in recent years – in the Occupy movement, for example – and, crucially, if, 32 years on from the Beanfield, we can get rid of the latest Tory thug government in next week’s General Election.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Please check out my song ‘Riot’ by my band The Four Fathers, which I hope has some resonance:

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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