37 years ago today, a event took place that has largely been shunted into the margins of modern British history, even though it remains a particularly chilling example of the state suppressing manifestations of dissent, and of ways of life that didn’t conform to a narrow interpretation of the ‘normal’ and the ‘acceptable’ in a manner reminiscent of the ways in which totalitarian authoritarian regimes deal with those regarded as an undesirable underclass.
That event is known as the Battle of the Beanfield, although ‘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, as 1,400 police, drawn from six counties and the MoD, violently assaulted and ‘decommissioned’ a convoy of vehicles, carrying 400 to 500 men, women and children, who were en route to Stonehenge to establish what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival.
For detailed accounts of the Beanfield and the wider free festival and travellers’ movements, my books The Battle of the Beanfield and Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion are both still in print, and can be ordered from me by clicking on the links.
The suppression of the festival — an alternative town that established itself every year in the fields opposite Stonehenge for the whole of June, and that, at its peak, in 1984, drew in tens of thousands of people from across the UK — was the justification used by the government of Margaret Thatcher to defend the single biggest peacetime assault on civilians in recent history, but it disguised other, even darker motives than the suppression of people’s collective assertion of a right to gather freely to listen to music and to practice alternative ways of living.
The violence at the Beanfield was also aimed at crushing the political disruption caused by those who had also been campaigning against nuclear power, and the use of the UK as the home for US bases containing nuclear weapons, and also crushing the way of life of what, at the time, was a growing New Traveller movement; those embracing the nomadic life of traditional Gypsies by buying up old commercial and ex-military vehicles, converting them into homes, and taking to the road — often in response to the chronic unemployment plaguing Britain’s towns and cities under Margaret Thatcher.
In many ways, Thatcher’s aims were fulfilled. The festival was stopped, the most prominent travellers had their vehicles — their homes — destroyed, with in many cases, their children taken into care. The brutality of that day sent shockwaves through those affected, with many deeply traumatised and unable to rebuild their lives. In other ways, however, at least for the next ten years, the violence backfired. Ecstasy and the rave scene unexpectedly revived the free festival movement as the free party scene, while those interested in environmental action, prevented from travelling freely, instead rooted themselves to the earth at the sites of numerous planned road expansion projects.
Eventually, the government of John Major (Thatcher’s successor) passed legislation that enabled the police to break up any unauthorised gathering of 20 or more people, driving would-be revellers underground, and rather sadly paving the way for commercial promoters to fill the void, although arguably Major’s most draconian novelty was to repeal the 1968 Caravans Sites Act, which had obliged local authorities to provide sites for Gypsies and travellers.
The repeal of the 1968 Act potentially criminalised the entire way of life of Gypsies and travellers, obliging them to seek out stopping places where they may or may not be tolerated, as well as having the engage with what was also an ever-tightening noose regarding trespass. No government since John Major had demonstrated any greater tolerance towards Gypsies and travellers, but a new low was reached when Priti Patel, an undisguised bigot, racist and xenophobe, became Home Secretary under Boris Johnson.
In my most read and shared article ever, “First They Came for the Travellers”: Priti Patel’s Chilling Attack on Britain’s Travelling Communities, published in November 2019 (which has over 30,000 likes on Facebook), I addressed Patel’s initial assault on the nomadic people of the UK, noting how, in Parliament, she had suggested 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.”
I also quoted George Monbiot, who, in an article for the Guardian, stated, “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.”
Last year, Patel’s vile plans were finally realised in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which also contained proposals meant to crush any kind of protest that can be perceived as disruptive, and that was aimed primarily at the environmental activists of Extinction Rebellion and the Black Lives Matter activists who toppled slavers’ statues in 2020. I wrote about the Bill’s proposals for protest in an article last March, entitled, The Dangerous Authoritarian Threat Posed by Priti Patel to Our Right to Protest and Dissent, and in June, on the 36th anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield, I discussed her proposals regarding Gypsies and travellers in a follow-up article, entitled, 36 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield, the Tories Remain Committed to Eradicating the Nomadic Way of Life.
In that article I quoted Luke Smith, a Romani Gypsy engineering worker, who had explained in an article for Tribune last March, “The truth is that the trespass provisions in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill were never about solving unauthorised encampments. They are about using our pariah status as a community to embolden the racist underbelly of this country, and rally citizens around another culture war enemy that mostly exists in their minds. For the 15-20 percent of Gypsy and Traveller people who still live the historic and nomadic way of life, as our ancestors did, the PCSC Bill is a matter of survival, both physically and culturally. This bill seeks to make our people criminal just for having the audacity to exist.”
One year on, Patel’s Bill is now law. The House of Lords successfully removed last minute amendments added to deal with other forms of protest, particularly as a result of the motorway-blocking actions of XR offshoot Insulate Britain, in her predictable knee-jerk manner, but, at the time of writing, she has just responded by issuing a new Public Order Bill that contains everything that the Lords opposed (you can see details and sign Liberty’s brand-new petition here). In the final Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, meanwhile, protest is still severely threatened, and the passages relating to Gypsies and travellers can now be acted upon.
As Friends, Families and Travellers explained when the Act became law at the end of April, “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.”
FFT added, “The Government cannot claim ignorance on how devastating this piece of legislation will be — opposition to the Policing Bill has been relentless. Voices from across the NGO sector have spoken out against this Bill, including Friends of the Earth, Liberty, Quakers and many, many others. The Police Bill Alliance was even created to unite organisations.”
FFT also noted that “opposition hasn’t just come from the NGOs”, explaining, “The overwhelming majority of Police Forces (the very same agencies tasked with enforcement) do not support the measures outlined in the Bill. The National Police Chiefs Council called for more suitable stopping places, not additional powers. The Home Office has chosen to ignore these calls.”
As FFT also explained, “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.”
On the 37th anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield, then, if we are to avoid Gypsies and travellers losing their homes and ending up, potentially, homeless and on the streets, and with their children taken into care, and we want to have the right to challenge racism and the legacy of slavery, and to protest about the urgency of the environmental crisis, we need to find ways to come together to get rid of this government — or, at least, to get rid of Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and the rest of the dim-witted, pro-Brexit authoritarians who make up the Cabinet — and make Britain a less horrible and more progressive place to live.