Hatred of Dissent: Reviewing Four Decades of Repressive Tory Laws on the 38th Anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield

1.6.23

Police swarm the last bus at the Battle of the Beanfield.

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38 years ago, on June 1, 1985, a convoy of vehicles carrying what the photographer Alan Lodge described as “a small, mild mannered bunch of people” — around 550 men, women and children, generally described at the time as New Age Travellers — was ambushed and “decommissioned” with extraordinary violence by around 1,4000 police from six countries and the Ministry of Defence, in what has become known as the Battle the Beanfield — although, as I stated in my article marking this horrendous event last year, “‘battle’ suggests the presence of two more or less equal parties engaged in conflict, when what actually took place was a one-sided rout of heartbreaking brutality.”

The convoy was hoping to reach Stonehenge, to establish what would have been the 12th annual free festival in fields opposite the ancient temple on Salisbury Plain, which had grown, by 1984, into an anarchic settlement that welcomed tens of thousands of visitors throughout the whole of June. An injunction had been served, intended to prevent anyone from reaching Stonehenge, and from the summer before travellers, environmental protestors and festival-goers had been harassed and assaulted from Yorkshire to RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire, where a peace camp, echoing the famous Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, had been established to resist the planned introduction of a second US cruise missile base on UK soil until it was evicted in February 1985 in the largest peace-time action involving British troops, led by the then-defence secretary Michael Heseltine.

Undeterred, however, the convoy had set off for Stonehenge from Savernake Forest in Wiltshire on June 1, but soon met with trouble. After the police blocked the road seven miles from Stonehenge, and officers began smashing the windows of stationary vehicles and the occupants were ”dragged out screaming”, as Tony Thompson explained in an article for the Observer in 2005, the majority of the convoy sought to avoid the violence by driving into a nearby beanfield.

There was a tense stand-off until 7pm, when, as Thompson described it, “all the officers had changed into riot gear”, and the “final assault” began. As Thompson put it, “Pregnant women were clubbed with truncheons, as were those holding babies. The journalist Nick Davies, then working for the Observer, saw the violence. ‘They were like flies around rotten meat,’ he wrote, ‘and there was no question of trying to make a lawful arrest. They crawled all over, truncheons flailing, hitting anybody they could reach. It was extremely violent and very sickening.’”

As Thompson proceeded to explain, “When some of those remaining tried to get away, driving their vehicles through the beanfield, the police threw anything they could lay their hands on — fire extinguishers, stones, shields and truncheons — at them in order to bring them to a halt. The empty vehicles were then systematically smashed to pieces and several were set on fire. Seven healthy dogs belonging to the Travellers were put down by officers from the RSPCA. In total, 537 people were arrested — the most arrests to take place on any single day since the Second World War.”

My books The Battle of the Beanfield and Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion, which are both still in print, and available to order from me.

Thompson’s article coincided with the publication of my book The Battle of the Beanfield, which is still in print, and, as I explained to him at the time, “The Battle of the Beanfield remains a black day for British justice and civil liberties. From the anti-Traveller legislation of the 1986 Public Order Act and the 1994 Criminal Justice Act to the current hysteria surrounding Gypsy and traveller settlements, the repercussions are still being felt.”

Although those arrested on the day were subsequently “charged with obstruction of the police and the highway”, in Thompson’s words, “most of the charges were dismissed in the courts”, in large part because of evidence of police brutality submitted by the Earl of Cardigan, “whose family owned the forest where the convoy had stayed the night before.” The Earl had tagged along with the convoy out of curiosity, and his intervention “prevented what might otherwise have become a major miscarriage of justice.”

The Public Order Act 1986

Nevertheless, despite losing in court (in 1991), the government had already put in place legislation that would ensure that they could continue to abuse the already abused — but this time on a firm legal footing. The 1986 Act was the first major update to the Public Order Act since it was first introduced in 1936, when it was aimed particularly at controlling the rise of fascist groups.

While the new Act addressed some glaring loopholes in the law, combatting efforts to stir up racial hatred, for example, its response to the Beanfield — and to the wider context of the time, especially involving the Miners’ Strike — was, as the legal scholar David Dixon explained in 1987, “re-presented in the distinctive guise of authoritarian populist policies … ensuring that the clear priority would be ‘law and order’, rather than the definition and protection of rights to protest and demonstrate.”

After years in which, as I explained two years ago, “the assertion of a claimed right to gather freely in significant numbers without prior permission … had often been tolerated by the authorities”, the aftermath of the Beanfield “marked a noticeably authoritarian shift in the politics of dissent.”

In dealing with “public assemblies”, the Act gave the police the power to restrict “an assembly of 20 or more persons in a public place which is wholly or partly open to the air”, if they “reasonably believe[d]” that it “may result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community.”

The Act also imposed a requirement for six days’ written notice to be provided to the police before most public processions, and empowered the police to impose conditions on processions “to prevent serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of the community.”

The Act also took aim at Gypsies and Travellers (and at free festivals), via Section 39, which stated that, if the police “reasonably believe[d] that two or more persons have entered land as trespassers and are present there with the common purpose of residing there for any period”, that “reasonable steps have been taken by or on behalf of the occupier to ask them to leave”, and that either damage or threats have been undertaken by the trespassers, or that they “have between them brought twelve or more vehicles on to the land”, they can be “direct[ed] … to leave the land.”

Raves and the road protest movement

It was just two years since tens of thousands of people had gathered at Stonehenge without any permission, but now, in Thatcher’s defiantly authoritarian Britain, 20 people — or 20 people with 12 vehicles — could, by law, be made to shut down their camp, their party, their festival or their protest.

While the travelling community, brutalised by their treatment at the Beanfield, continued to be harangued by the authorities, other movements sprang up to continue the rich tradition of dissent, both through hedonism and political action.

The rave scene, which caught everyone by surprise, as ecstacy swept the country, and illegal raves sprang up everywhere, was one such development, while another, directly related to the suppression of freedom of movement of Britain’s nomads, was the road protest movement, which involved intrepid campaigners rooting themselves to the land in places of beauty threatened with new roads, living in trees and in tunnels, and locking on to heavy industrial equipment to prevent it being used.

The country’s various tribes came together on Castlemorton Common in Worcestershire inMay 1992, when, for the first time since the last Stonehenge Free Festival in June 1984, tens of thousands of people held a free festival for a week.

The Criminal Justice Act 1994

Predictably, Castlemorton caused politicians and the media to whip up a moral panic, leading to further repressive legislation in the 1994 Criminal Justice Act. As I explained in The Battle the Beanfield:

One of the most notorious aspects of the Criminal Justice [Act] was that it specifically targeted the ‘repetitive beats’ of the sound systems [‘sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’], and was aimed at further limiting gatherings of travellers and the free party scene by reducing the numbers of vehicles which could come together in one place from 12 to six. In many ways, however, these were amongst the [Act’s] milder repressive measures. Also included were criminal sanctions against assembly — specifically through ‘trespassory assembly’, an amendment of the Public Order Act whereby the police were enabled to ban groups of 20 or more meeting in a particular area if they feared ‘serious disruption to the life of the community’, even if the meeting was non-obstructive and non-violent — and ‘aggravated trespass’, which fulfilled the right-wing dream of transforming trespass from a civil to a criminal concern.

As I also explained:

Most savagely of all, the Act repealed the 1968 Caravan Sites Act, which, by removing the obligation on local authorities to provide sites for Gypsies — ‘persons of nomad habit of life, whatever their race or origin’ — finally criminalised the entire way of life of Gypsies and travellers, with baleful effects that are still being felt to this day.

Commercialisation, globalisation, the “war on terror”and the return of the Tories

No vast anarchic gathering on the scale of Castlemorton (or the Stonehenge Free Festival in 1984) has happened since the passage of the Criminal Justice Act. Commercial raves and festivals have transformed an idea brought to life by “freaks”, hippies, anarchists and visionaries into just another cog in the capitalist world of consumption, and anti-capitalist alternatives have largely gone underground.

Stifling dissent proved more difficult, as the brief flowering of a vast anti-globalisation movement at the end of the ‘90s demonstrated, but under Tony Blair, who, as I see it, subjected Britain to a “psychic cosh” when he took power in 1997, after 18 years of Tory rule, capitalist materialism thrived (in particular, through the creation of a greed-based housing bubble that is still with us 25 years later), and, after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, anti-terrorist legislation and warmongering dominated political life until the global economic crash of 2008 (brought about by the unfettered greed of the banking sector) inexplicably brought the Tories back to power.

Largely content with imposing a cynical “age of austerity” on the UK in their early days, the Tories, under David Cameron, subsequently led us out of the EU, triggering our slow economic collapse and increasing international irrelevance, and creating a profound isolationism that has led to two staggeringly unpleasant results: firstly, a racist and xenophobic obsession, from the deranged Brexiteers who now make up the Cabinet, with sealing our borders shut, criminalising the very notion of being a refugee, and repulsing any notion that anyone foreign might presume to want to come here to work; and, secondly, with a draconian assault on the right to protest. Along the way, there has also been a renewed assault on Gypsies and Travellers.

Seething nightmares of venom: Priti Patel and Suella Braverman

The rot set in with Priti Patel, appointed as home secretary by the empty, self-obsessed blimp that is Boris Johnson. In her Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Act of 2022, Patel followed up on her suggestion 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 I explained in my most-read article ever, in November 2019.

As Friends, Families and Travellers explained when the Act became law, “Despite its aims, the Policing Bill will not eradicate travelling. Instead, it will force those who have nowhere else to go into a direct confrontation with the law. A family seeking somewhere to bed down for the night will have to reckon with the possibility of their home being seized, their children thrown into care and their livelihoods torn apart.”

As FFT added, “This piece of legislation and the chronic lack of stopping places do plenty to tell people where they can’t go, but offer no alternatives for where they can go. If you criminalise trespass and further marginalise families and entire communities, you must also reinstate the duty on local authorities to offer suitable stopping places — as sites or negotiated stopping arrangements. Otherwise, this assimilation-by-stealth sets a terrifying precedent not just for Gypsy and Traveller families, but for society at large.”

While Patel’s hatred of nomadic people was clearly long established, her attacks on protest were specifically in response to two movements that had annoyed her in 2019 and 2020: Extinction Rebellion, the climate activists who had blocked roads and bridges, and had sometimes glued themselves to objects, to highlight the severity of the climate crisis, and the government’s failure to tackle it adequately, and the activists in Bristol who had toppled a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston.

As the Independent explained, when publishing a letter from over 700 legal scholars, calling for the Bill to be scrapped, “Under its terms, individuals could be jailed for up to 10 years for causing ‘serious annoyance or inconvenience.’ Police could impose legally binding restrictions on marches or rallies on the grounds that the noise generated ‘may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation’ or may ‘have a relevant impact on persons in the vicinity of the protest.’ And unprecedented new powers could impose controls on protests by a single person.”

In addition, ”Anyone breaching conditions imposed by police can be arrested and prosecuted, even if they did not know they were in place, as the bill lowers the threshold which currently says it is an offence ‘knowingly’ to fail to comply, making it possible to be charged with breaking a restriction which they “knew or ought to have known about.”

As the Bill was passing through Parliament, Priti Patel added a number of amendments — further knee-jerk responses to actions by two XR offshoots, Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain. However, although these were stripped out of the final Act by the House of Lords, Patel responded, with vicious petulance, by immediately incorporating them into new legislation, an updated Public Order Bill, gleefully inherited by her successor, Suella Braverman, whose chilling intent was summarised by George Monbiot in January:

The public order bill is the kind of legislation you might expect to see in Russia, Iran or Egypt. Illegal protest is defined by the bill as acts causing “serious disruption to two or more individuals, or to an organisation.” Given that the Police Act redefined “serious disruption” to include noise, this means, in effect, all meaningful protest.

For locking or glueing yourself to another protester, or to the railings or any other object, you can be sentenced to 51 weeks in prison — in other words, twice the maximum sentence for common assault. Sitting in the road, or obstructing fracking machinery, pipelines and other oil and gas infrastructure, airports or printing presses (Rupert [Murdoch] says thanks) can get you a year. For digging a tunnel as part of a protest, you can be sent down for three years.

Even more sinister are the “serious disruption prevention orders” in the bill. Anyone who has taken part in a protest in England or Wales in the previous five years, whether or not they have been convicted of an offence, can be served with a two-year order forbidding them from attending further protests. Like prisoners on probation, they may be required to report to “a particular person at a particular place at … particular times on particular days”, “to remain at a particular place for particular periods” and to submit to wearing an electronic tag. They may not associate “with particular persons”, enter “particular areas” or use the internet to encourage other people to protest. If you break these terms, you face up to 51 weeks in prison. So much for “civilised” and “democratic.”

As George Monbiot added, “Who are the criminals here? Those seeking to prevent the vandalism of the living planet, or those facilitating it?”

The Public Order Act 2023 received Royal Assent on May 2, although Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, immediately condemned it as “deeply troubling legislation that is incompatible with the UK’s international human rights obligations regarding people’s rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.”

As he explained, “This new law imposes serious and undue restrictions on these rights that are neither necessary nor proportionate to achieve a legitimate purpose as defined under international law. This law is wholly unnecessary as UK police already have the powers to act against violent and disruptive demonstration. It is especially worrying that the law expands the powers of the police to stop and search individuals, including without suspicion; defines some of the new criminal offences in a vague and overly broad manner; and imposes unnecessary and disproportionate criminal sanctions on people organizing or taking part in peaceful protests.”

A Just Stop Oil campaigner attacked by an irate driver on Blackfriars Bridge last week.

For those of us who were around at the time of the Battle of the Beanfield, or who have faced the impacts of authoritarian legislation in the decades since, the words ‘Public Order Act’ can only ever be discomforting. However, as Just Stop Oil campaigners, undeterred, have continued to test the resolve of the police by slow marching every day in central London since the new Public Order Act was passed, I’m sure all of us are fully supportive of their actions.

They, after all, are only demanding what the government is supposedly committed to as part of its climate obligations under the 2015 Paris Agreement — ending all new oil and gas. They, and not the protestors, are the extremists — the terrorists, one might even say — and, as was the case in 1985, the “small, mild mannered bunch of people” out on the roads are the ones who deserve our support, not the sociopaths and criminals in the government.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), 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 (see the ongoing 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 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 you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.50).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the 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, in 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to try to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody.

Since 2019, Andy has become increasingly involved in environmental activism, recognizing that climate change poses an unprecedented threat to life on earth, and that the window for change — requiring a severe reduction in the emission of all greenhouse gases, and the dismantling of our suicidal global capitalist system — is rapidly shrinking, as tipping points are reached that are occurring much quicker than even pessimistic climate scientists expected. You can read his articles about the climate crisis here.

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8 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, remembering the Battle of the Beanfield on its 38th anniversary, when travellers trying to get to Stonehenge to set up what would have been the 12th Stonehenge Free Festival, were violently “decommissioned” by riot police, who vastly outnumbered them. Not actually a “battle”, as I explain, it was instead a one-sided rout of heartbreaking brutality.

    I also review four decades of repressive public order legislation by the Tories, running from the 1986 Public Order Act to the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, and on to the 2022 Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Act and the latest version of the Public Order Act.

    Aimed at criminalising the way of life of Gypsies and Travellers, the legislation is also aimed at criminalising any form of even mildly disruptive protest, of the kind currently being undertaken by climate protestors, whose actions would chime with the beleaguered travellers, festival-goers and environmental activists of 38 years ago.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Kevin Hester wrote:

    None of us should be surprised that the British ruling class have manipulated the Westminster In-Justice system to the point that civil liberties are being eroded by the hour.
    More great investigative journalism from Andy.
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10226794077130699&set=p.10226794077130699&type=3

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Kevin. It was such a shock when Priti Patel announced her new Public Order Act, casting minds back to the 1986 Act that first started the criminalisation of Gypsies and Travellers, and of our quaint presumption that we could gather freely to party or to protest. And still we’re fighting – but now the whole world is at stake.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Emma Ryan wrote:

    Much gratitude Andy 🙂 ❤

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Emma. Good to hear from you.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    I didn’t have time to add that the government is now trying to re-introduce elements of the Public Order Bill that were removed by the Lords using a ‘Ministerial decree’ to overturn the Lords’ vote. Central to this was the Lords’ refusal to accept the government’s efforts to interpret “serious disruption” of other people’s day-to-day activities to mean “anything more than minor.”

    Baroness Jenny Jones of the Green Party has tabled a ‘Fatal Motion’ to stop this, because, as an article in ‘Green World’ explained, “This is the first time ever that the government has tried to use secondary legislation to directly overturn the will of Parliament.”

    As Jenny Jones said, “This is a make-or-break moment for parliamentary democracy. The Lords defeated the government on this issue and the Minister is now acting like a seventeenth-century monarch by using a decree to reverse that vote.

    “What is the point of Parliament if a Minister can just ignore the outcome of debates and votes by imposing draconian laws on the public?

    “This is not a one-off, but part of a trend of legislation that undermines parliamentary democracy by giving Ministers increasing powers to make, delete or change laws. In the last four years, we have seen a series of skeleton bills pass through parliament that hand over powers and discretion to Ministers to make decisions with minimal parliamentary scrutiny.”

    https://greenworld.org.uk/article/baroness-jenny-jones-tables-fatal-motion-against-public-order-bill

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Damien Morrison wrote:

    They would be horrified by what’s happening now.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s been terrible for Gypsies and Travellers throughout this whole time, Damien, and the limit on “public assemblies” has always been a great disappointment, but it’s the draconian responses to protest from Patel and Braverman that’s particularly shocking, and that, as with so much else that’s wrong with the government, is a direct result of Brexit.

    The excruciatingly bad Ministers we’ve been burdened with since Brexit believe that no rules, no tradition, no precedent binds them; that Brexit delivered them a UK that is a blank slate for every deranged notion they can come up with. Such extraordinary arrogance, backed up by such pitiful, tiny, cruel and corrupt minds.

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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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