It’s Now 31 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield: Where is the Spirit of Dissent in the UK Today?
31 years ago, the British state, under Margaret Thatcher, committed one of its most violent acts against its own citizens, at the Battle of the Beanfield, when a group of travellers — men, women and children — who were driving to Stonehenge from Savernake Forest to establish what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival were set upon by tooled-up police from six counties, and the Ministry of Defence.
The travellers were outnumbered three to one, while the police were at the height of their use as a paramilitary force by Margaret Thatcher.
Buy my book The Battle of the Beanfield.
Also available: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion.
The year before, the police had crushed the miners at Orgreave (promoting calls this year for an official inquiry after the belated triumph of victims’ families against the police at the Hillsborough Inquest), and the assault on the travelling community had started shortly after, when a group of travellers were harried from a festival in the north of England. Some of this group joined up with other travellers, festival-goers and green activists at Molesworth, in Cambridgeshire, the planned location for Britain’s second cruise missile base, where a peace camp was set up, following the example of the Women’s peace camp at Greenham Common, set up in opposition to the first cruise missile base. The Molesworth camp was, in turn, shut down by the largest peacetime mobilisation of troops, in February 1985, and for the next four months the travellers were harassed until June 1, when the Battle of the Beanfield took place.
The Beanfield was a horrible example of state violence, with both short-term and long-term implications. Severe damage was done to Britain’s traveller community, who had been seeking to create an alternative culture of free festivals from May to October every year, and who, as Molesworth showed, were not just hedonists, but also had ecological and anti-nuclear aims.
I had attended the last two Stonehenge Free Festivals, and what I experienced had been an astonishing eye-opener, an alternative society that evidently continued the counter-cultural ambitions of the 1960s and 1970s, but that, by the 1980s, had run up against the intolerance of Thatcher’s vision of a new Britain, where dissenters — the “enemy within,” as she called the miners — were crushed, so that corporate capitalism could prevail unchallenged.
The Beanfield did not stamp out dissent, although it paved the way for the notion of the criminalisation of dissent to take hold, which led to repressive laws being passed that clamped down on the freedom of assembly so that it now appears to be some sort of ancient dream, and the police eventually worked out a form of crowd control — kettling — that effectively shuts down unwanted protest.
Nevertheless, following the Beanfield, the government of Margaret Thatcher, and, later, of John Major, was ambushed by the rave scene, when, every weekend, millions of ecstasy-fuelled young people partied in fields and in warehouses across the nation, and by the road protest movement, which saw creative protestors living in trees to stop road expansion programmes (a uniquely British development that does not appear to have been replicated anywhere else). This is turn led to an urban offshoot, Reclaim the Streets, that joyfully took back public spaces — roads — in a way that is now almost unimaginable.
The beginning of the end, after the creative chaos of the Major years, was, I think, the election in 1997 of Tony Blair, who, as I generally describe it, hit us all with a psychic cosh, removing our freedom through a mixture of repression and brainwashing — the former building on the laws passed by the Tories, and taking advantage of the new opportunities for repression and a message of permanent fear that was enabled by the 9/11 attacks (after a few years of serious dissent from the anti-globalisation movement), and the latter through a message of greed and materialism that infected the culture as a whole, and, it seems, significantly changed the way far too many people think.
Below, via YouTube, I’m posting ‘Operation Solstice’, the 1991 documentary the Battle of the Beanfield, and the subsequent trial, in a version that co-director Gareth Morris produced for the 30th anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield last year:
Every year, the Beanfield anniversary reminds me how much has been lost, and while I’m aware that this is, in part, because I’m becoming older, nothing has yet persuaded me that the current culture — selfish, self-obsessed, materialistic and corporate-enslaved, and with an almost inescapable obsession with suppressing anything that resembles a viable counter-culture by pricing it out or buying it up — has much about it worth celebrating.
We may have grown up to overcome much of the dysfunction that fuelled a lot of the iconoclasm of the ’70s — which has to be a good thing, of course — but in many ways that has left us, in general, quiescent, prone to believe the lies told us by new age-saturated charlatans in PR and marketing, who have convinced us that there is no such things as righteous anger (there is), and unable to fight back against those who have taken advantage of the lack of opposition to feather their own obscenely greedy nests, at the expense of the domestic poor, the globally exploited and impoverished, and, of course, the environment.
To my mind, whatever victories have been achieved in our superficially clever, insatiably greedy society, with its promise of billions of everything — from food, to clothes, to gadgets, to all the treats we’re told we deserve because we’re worth it, because we’re special — are offset by catastrophic climate change, by the greatest refugee crisis of our lifetimes, and by the self-obsessed miserable, isolationist whingeing of an aging population of people who, far from being deprived of anything, are, materially, the most fortunate generation in human history.
As I mark this sad anniversary for the 31st time, I have a dream — of the revival of a vibrant counter-culture — to tear down the dull complacency of the materialistic mainstream, with its smug empty triumphalism, and its cold, cold heart.
Below, as a bonus, I’m posting, also via YouTube, ‘Life in the Fast Lane – The No M11 Story’ by Operation Solstice co-director Neil Goodwin and Mayyasa Al-Malazi, about the road protest movement:
For more on the Beanfield, see my 2009 article for the Guardian, Remember 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 Society, Radio: On Eve of Summer Solstice at Stonehenge, Andy Worthington Discusses the Battle of the Beanfield and Dissent in the UK, It’s 28 Years Since Margaret Thatcher Crushed Travellers at the Battle of the Beanfield, Back in Print: The Battle of the Beanfield, Marking Margaret Thatcher’s Destruction of Britain’s Travellers, It’s 29 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield, and the World Has Changed Immeasurably and It’s 30 Years Since Margaret Thatcher Trashed the Travellers’ Movement at the Battle of the Beanfield.
For reflections on Stonehenge and the summer solstice, see Stonehenge and the summer solstice: past and present, It’s 25 Years Since The Last Stonehenge Free Festival, Stonehenge Summer Solstice 2010: Remembering the Battle of the Beanfield, RIP Sid Rawle, Land Reformer, Free Festival Pioneer, Stonehenge Stalwart, Happy 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, 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,’ is available for download or on CD via Bandcamp — also see here). 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).
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