The Hell That is Boris Johnson’s Broken, Brexit-Deluded, Covid-Ravaged England

Boris Johnson leaves a media briefing in Downing Street on December 24, 2020.

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For the last two months, my physical world has shrunk immensely. For nine years I cycled almost every day, capturing the changing face of London on bike rides that have taken me to the furthest postcodes of Europe’s largest city, and that, since the first Covid lockdown in March 2020, involved me cycling most days into central London — the City and the West End — to capture what began as apocalyptic emptiness, to which, by degrees, human activity eventually returned, but on nothing like the scale that it was before Covid hit. I post a photo a day from those bike rides — with accompanying essays — on my Facebook page ‘The State of London’, and also on Twitter.

Two months ago, however, I sprained my leg quite badly — crossing an unexpected line when what I thought was healthy activity turned out to be something that, instead, signified that my body’s resilience was finite, and that I was wearing it out.

Since then, I’ve barely left my immediate neighbourhood. For most of the last two months, I felt fortunate if I was able to hobble to the bottom of the street I live in in Brockley, in south east London. The worst of it is now over, as the muscle I sprained has finally healed, but in the process of compensating my knee itself is now bruised and painful, and although I can walk further — up to and and around my local park, Hilly Fields, and around the streets nearest to me, I haven’t been able to venture further afield, except on a few occasions when my wife has driven me somewhere.

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36 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield, the Tories Remain Committed to Eradicating the Nomadic Way of Life

Six photos from the Battle of the Beanfield, on June 1, 1985, when the police, under Margaret Thatcher, destroyed, with unprecedented violence, a convoy of vehicles containing men, women and children, as they tried to make their way to Stonehenge to set up what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival.

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36 years ago today, on June 1, 1985, Margaret Thatcher’s para-militarised police force, fresh from suppressing striking miners, turned their attention, via what has become known as the Battle of the Beanfield, to the next “enemy within” — the travellers, environmental activists, festival-goers and anarchists who had been taking to the roads in increasing numbers in response to the devastation of the economy in Thatcher’s early years in office.

The unemployment rate when Thatcher took office, in May 1979, was 5.3%, but it then rose at an alarming rate, reaching 10% in the summer of 1981 and hitting a peak of 11.9% in the spring of 1984. Faced with ever diminishing work opportunities, thousands of people took to the roads in old coaches, vans and even former military vehicles.

Some, inspired by the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common in Berkshire, which was undertaken to resist the establishment of Britain’s first US-controlled cruise missile base, engaged in environmental activism, of which the most prominent example was the Rainbow Village established in 1984 at RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire, intended to be Britain’s second cruise missile base, while others found an already established seasonal free festival circuit that ran though the summer months, and whose focal point was the annual free festival at Stonehenge, first established to mark the summer solstice at Britain’s most celebrated ancient monument in 1974, which had been growing ever larger, year on year, drawing in tens of thousands of visitors, myself included, in 1983 and 1984.

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The Dangerous Authoritarian Threat Posed by Priti Patel to Our Right to Protest and Dissent

Shame on Priti Patel: a placard at the protest outside New Scotland Yard on March 14, 2021 following the heavy-handed suppression of a peaceful vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common the evening before (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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So the war is on, then — of home secretary Priti Patel versus the people; Priti Patel, the authoritarian bigot, versus anyone who dares to disagree with her about anything; Priti Patel, a woman, and the child of Ugandan-Indian immigrants, who, nevertheless, embodies the worst aspects of an arrogant, intolerant, racist, sexist, planet-despoiling, rights-hating elite British patriarchy.

For anyone concerned about civil liberties in the UK, Priti Patel’s deeply troubling attitude to dissent seems to have fuelled yesterday’s heavy-handed response by the police to a peaceful vigil by women on Clapham Common mourning the brutal murder of Sarah Everard, allegedly by a serving police officer.

The sight of policemen using force to break up the vigil was an act of truly astonishing insensitivity, and while there are clearly questions to be asked of the officers involved — concerning their blatant ‘manhandling’ of grieving women, and claims that some officers deliberately trampled on flowers left by woman at the vigil, as well as the risibility of the Metropolitan Police’s own claims about them having to break up the vigil because of concerns about public safety in light of the ongoing Covid regulations — it seems most pertinent to look up the chain of command for an explanation of how and why such a heavy-handed and insensitive display of force took place — and that chain of command leads inexorably, via the Met Commissioner Cressida Dick, to Priti Patel.

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It’s 35 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield; Where Do We Go Now?

Police swarming around the last bus to be violently “decommissioned” at the Battle of Beanfield, on June 1, 1985.

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Today is the 35th anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield; actually, a one-sided rout of heartbreaking brutality in a field in Wiltshire, when 1,400 police from six counties and the MoD violently “decommissioned” a convoy of 400 travellers trying to get to Stonehenge to establish what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival, a huge autonomous settlement, numbering tens of thousands of people, that occupied the fields by Stonehenge for the whole of the month of June, and that had become a target for violent suppression by Margaret Thatcher.

My book The Battle of the Beanfield, published to mark the 20th anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield, is still in print, so please feel free to order a copy. Also available: Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion, my counter-cultural history of Stonehenge.

Thatcher had spent 1984 crushing one group of citizens described as the “enemy within” — the miners — while also paving the way for the next “enemy within” to be crushed — the travellers, anarchists and environmental and anti-nuclear activists who made up the convoy attempting to get to Stonehenge when they were ambushed, and then crushed after they sought refuge in a bean field off the A303.

Elements of the convoy had been violently set upon by police in the summer of 1984, at Nostell Priory in Yorkshire, and in February 1985, activists and travellers who had established a settlement at RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire (the second proposed site for cruise missiles after Greenham Common in Berkshire, the site of the famous women’s peace camp) were evicted by the largest peacetime mobilisation of troops in modern British history, symbolically led by Thatcher’s right-hand man and defence secretary, Michael Heseltine.

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“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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Extinction Rebellion’s Urgent Environmental Protest Breaks New Ground While Drawing on the Occupy, Anti-Globalisation and Road Protest Movements

Climate emergency: Extinction Rebellion campaigners – mainly featuring an impressive samba band – marching from the camp at Marble Arch to the Oxford Circus occupation today, April 18, 2019. Most of Oxford Street was closed to traffic, like so many roads in central London, including Waterloo Bridge (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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Well, this is getting interesting. On Monday, when the environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion began its occupation of five sites in central London — Parliament Square, Waterloo Bridge, Oxford Circus, Piccadilly Circus and Marble Arch — I wasn’t sure that the ongoing intention of crashing the system through mass arrests, and waking people up to the need for change by disrupting their lives was going to work. 

I’d taken an interest when Extinction Rebellion started in October — although I was still largely preoccupied by the occupation (and subsequent eviction) of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford — but I’d ended up thinking that, although they had secured significant media coverage, which was very helpful, and their ‘branding’ was extremely striking, this wasn’t going to be enough. 

I was somewhat heartened when, in related actions, school kids — inspired by the 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg — got involved in climate strikes, and I hope we’ll be seeing a lot more on that front, but on Monday I couldn’t see how Extinction Rebellion’s latest coordinated protests were going to work. The police seemed, for the most part, to be trying not to give the protestors what they wanted — mass arrests — and although the crowds I encountered at Parliament Square and Oxford Circus reminded me of aspects of social movements of the past — Reclaim the Streets and the road protest movement from the ’90s, the anti-globalisation movement of the late ’90s and early 2000s, and 2011’s Occupy movement — I couldn’t see how the movement was going to be able to take the next step, and to build the momentum necessary for significant change.

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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 »

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