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. 

The convoy also, unacceptably from the state’s point of view, confronted the establishment’s claimed land rights, embraced environmental awareness in contrast to corporate materialism, and opposed nuclear power and nuclear weapons, both of which were endorsed by Thatcher and the Tories.  

While the state’s brutality dealt a serious blow to the coherence of the traveller and festival movement, it wasn’t enough to stifle dissent. I had visited the Stonehenge Free Festival as a student in 1983 and 1984, and it had a transformational effect on me. News of the Beanfield was genuinely shocking, as was the suppression of the festival, and the passing of new laws, in the 1986 Public Order Act, that were designed to cripple the ability of any group of perceived troublemakers to gather freely, but it was foolish of the Tories to believe that they could prevent active and vocal criticism of Thatcher’s vision of a new privatised Britain of unfettered banking and rabid materialism.

A new drug, ecstasy, soon emerged to create a loved-up party scene involving huge and illegal warehouse raves, which soon attracted survivors of the traveller and festival scene, creating new counter-cultural hybrids, the culmination of which was the last Stonehenge-sized free festival, on Castlemorton Common in Gloucestershire, over the Whitsun Bank Holiday weekend in May 1992, where all the many tribes came together — boy racers from the Home Counties meeting the crusty encampments of the Brew Crew, as rave sound systems played 24/7. 

That prompted a further clampdown, via 1994’s Criminal Justice Act, with its absurd efforts to ban music characterised by “a series of repetitive beats,” and further, draconian bans on unlicensed gatherings, as well as the effective criminalisation of trespass, but what no one saw coming was a broad protest movement that saw the earth as sacred, and that involved protestors occupying trees, digging tunnels and working out how to lock themselves on to equipment to prevent the creation of roads and bypasses. 

In 1993-94, a huge battle of resistance took place in east London, to try to prevent the creation of the M11 Link Road, and in the meantime another urban expression of dissent came about via Reclaim the Streets, which blocked roads and held parties in spaces that were suddenly car-free and autonomous.

These movements in turn fed into the huge anti-globalisation movement of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and the Occupy movement of 2011-12, when public space was once more occupied, and the prevailing economic system was dissected and found wanting. Nevertheless, the prevailing trend in the 21st century has been for the corporate world to consolidate its power, turning populations into docile consumers, and trapping as many people as possible in insanely expensive housing so that, in theory, they — we — are too tied up and distracted to rise up.

Sadly, this has been largely successful, but it requires serious levels of employment to work well, and decent jobs, meanwhile, are drying up, through outsourcing, mechanisation and A.I. advances. As those falling through a deliberately frayed safety net — part of the cynical “age of austerity” implemented by the Tories in response to the banker-led global economic crash of 2008 — drop off the system’s radar, they are forced to find ways to subsist peripherally, living on the streets, permanently crashing at the houses of friends, as so-called “sofa surfers”, in tents, in cars or vans, in caravans, or through squatting in empty industrial buildings, which are the only buildings that can now be successfully squatted, after the Tories, disgracefully, made squatting in empty houses a criminal, rather than a civil offence.

In some crucial ways, the situation is similar to that which created a growing traveller movement in the early ‘80s, under Thatcher, but now, of course, people can’t easily sign on and live largely without scrutiny, and the cheap vehicles of the ‘80s no longer exist. Many of the counter-cultural impulses, however, live on, and after the long drought in serious dissent that preceded the Occupy movement, a similarly long subsequent drought in opposing the status quo had to wait until last October, when Extinction Rebellion (XR) announced itself via the simultaneous occupation of five central London bridges.

As someone who has lived through, and taken part in the various counter-cultural movements from the free festivals to the road protest movement to the anti-globalisation protests and the Occupy movement, I was intrigued by the thought that had gone into XR’s efforts at mass mobilisation and mass dissent — disrupting “business as usual” via scrupulously non-violent direct action, and, more contentiously seeking mass arrests, to highlight the unprecedented man-made environmental crisis we currently face, and when, in April, campaigners occupied four central London sites for a week — Waterloo Bridge, Oxford Circus, Parliament Square and Marble Arch — it felt very much as though a spark drawing inspiration from the extraordinary Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common, the road protest movement, the anti-globalisation movement and Occupy had been re-ignited, that, this time, might lead to significant system change.

I don’t mean to sound naive about the state’s desire and ability to mobilise in resistance to any efforts to break the current state of business, but what XR — and the powerful figure of 16-year old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and the school strike for climate movement she inspired — have that none of our previous movements have been able to achieve is a global sense of absolute emergency. We are, to be blunt, already killing the planet as a sustainable entity for humans, and, for the first time, large numbers of people seem to be waking up to the painful truth that, if we don’t embrace a complete, revolutionary change in the way that we deplete and consume the world’s resources, fill the planet with plastic, and pump out carbon dioxide, we face a dangerously super-heated atmosphere and the total collapse of civilisation as we know it not only within our lifetimes, but possibly within the next ten years. 

34 years on, gazing back in time to the Battle of the Beanfield is in many ways a sad indicator of quite how much the world has changed in the intervening decades, with hectic over-consumption, self-absorption and self-entitlement at unprecedented levels, but those of us who have never settled for dystopian materialism as meaningful or worthwhile need to remember that what was being sought back then, and is still being sought now, is more important than ever, and that the struggle for a less rapacious and more sustainable world can still be won, and, indeed, must be won, because nothing less than the very future of humanity is at stake.

* * * * *

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 2017 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. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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11 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Today it’s 34 years since the Battle of the Beanfield, when the full weight of Margaret Thatcher’s authoritarianism landed with extreme violence on a convoy of travellers, environmental activists and anarchists trying to get to Stonehenge to establish what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival.

    Looking back on the terrible events of that day, I trace a thread from the free festivals to the road protest movement, the anti-globalisation movement, Occupy and, now, Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes for climate inspired by Greta Thunberg, and express my hope that perhaps, this time, the urgency of the man-made environmental crisis we face is so severe that people will actually wake up in sufficient numbers to effect a revolutionary change to our broken, earth-killing capitalist system.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    If you haven’t seen it, do check out ‘Operation Solstice’, the 1991 documentary about the Battle of the Beanfield: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1doyDQDZtc

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Gil Bert wrote:

    Andy, if you are feeling investigative, would you consider digging into XR? I am hearing a lot of suspicion (here & elsewher) amounting to ‘XR is a stooge’ … ie that XR is being allowed to flourish by powerful groups who wish to make money off the move away from oil & gas.
    I am not convinced of these claims, but would welcome knowing more. It is good to know as much as possible.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, there’s a lot of suspicion, Gil, but I haven’t seen anything to suggest that XR is anything other than an effort to crash the system by people who could most damningly be described as middle class would-be revolutionaries. I’m sure aspiring green capitalists are eager to get involved in making money out of any societal shift to a greener way of operating, but I don’t see that manoeuvring as inherently sinister.
    I think the first thing that is crucial to accept is the need for urgent and sweeping changes to the entire way our capitalist system operates, and then we can discuss the best way that can be tackled. Personally I’d like to see capitalism’s energy put into strictly non-profit-making efforts to shift the entire basis of our culture to urgent damage limitation, but I don’t know if the greedy f*ckers who drive most of capitalism’s way of operating can even think about getting out of bed with turning a profit and screwing someone over! 😉

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Lisa Mead wrote:

    It’s totally happening, people are waking up big time.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I think that’s right, Lisa. I think it was the main driver for the big increase in Green votes in the European elections in western Europe – and, of course, it’s a massive and still-growing focus for those disenfranchised by reason of their age – the under-18s enthusiastically embracing the school strikes for climate.
    Green article here from today’s Observer: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jun/02/european-parliament-election-green-parties-success

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Alan Dearling wrote:

    It does seem to be a time when young people are becoming radical once more regarding the environment – and with the internet and social media, this can become global – swiftly. But, by my thinking, whilst I travel around Europe, I sense that the politics of nationalism and the ‘right’ may have to get worse before it gets better … and maybe some chaos in between.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it would be foolish to ignore the alarming rise of the far right, Alan, and perhaps particuarly so in eastern Europe. In western Europe, at least, the xenophobic old white separatists are up against young, globally-connected people who seem to be growing ever more aware on the environmental catastrophe that is already underway, and prepared to act on it, and I hope their energy prevails, but it’s not going to be easy.

  9. Newsletter 24: They fought like (nonviolent) Scotsmen - Extinction Rebellion - Extinction Rebellion says...

    […] which usefully chart the ongoing activist movements which followed on from these events, including this recent one mentioning […]

  10. Paul Canham says...

    Hi Andy, you mention in your article about those that fall through the frayed safety net and are forced to subsist peripherally, with some living in vans. However, vanlife as a movement has also been growing recently because of people choosing it rather than out of financial necessity. I wonder if you would consider this growth to be a manifestation of residual counter-culture? I attended the Rougham Tree Fairs as a teenager and can remember how things used to be. Things have changed a lot since then and yet I still see echoes of the past. I have met people who live in their vans and still make a living from festivals by setting up stages, etc. And new fairs like Strumpshaw Tree Fair try to emulate some of the spirit of the old albion fairs. I’m currently a sociology and psychology student at the University of Suffolk in Bury St Edmunds and am looking at vanlife for my dissertation. One aspect I’m examining is post-modern neo-tribalism and considering whether modern vanlife is a new movement or whether it has one foot in the past. I would be very interested in your thoughts on this.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Paul – and your dissertation sounds very interesting.
    What occurs to me as an immediate response to your questions is the point at which necessity and choice meet. If we had the ample provision of genuinely cheap and secure rented housing, people might be more tempted to stay put, but as that’s not generally feasible, people are making choices, some of which involve getting vans and living in them, just as, in the 80s, people living in places with colossal unemployment and no prospects also decided to take to the road.
    As for the counter-culture, I think it provides clear reference points, then and now. In the 80s, these reference points were the 60s counter-culture (mainly via the US example), and its eventual, wider manifestation in the UK in the 70s festival culture, whereas now people are not only still looking back on those times, but also have the whole counter-culture of the 80s and 90s to draw on – and, I would suspect, whatever they can draw on counter-culturally from the last 20-odd years, although the last two decades have, in general, been a rather lean time for counter-cultural manifestations, and especially, it seems to me, from a working class perspective.
    Happy to discuss this more, if it’s of interest.

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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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