The Blog

Thatcher's Golden Years: Remembering the 'Battle of the Beanfield'

Glenda Jackson's powerful assault on Margaret Thatcher was a welcome antidote to the generally adulatory and sycophantic tributes emanating from politicians and clueless celebrities alike.

Glenda Jackson's powerful assault on Margaret Thatcher was a welcome antidote to the generally adulatory and sycophantic tributes emanating from politicians and clueless celebrities alike.

It was a breath of fresh air to hear a politician remind parliament with such passionate clarity of Thatcher's 'brutal contempt' towards sections of British society and the culture of ' greed, selfishness and no care for the weaker' that she promoted and represented.

Many people were on the receiving end of that 'brutal contempt'. during the Thatcher years. But there is one episode that particularly stands out for me, which has been largely forgotten even by her critics in recent days. I'm referring not to the miners strike, but to the so-called 'Battle of the Beanfield' that took place near Stonehenge on 1 June 1985. That day Wiltshire police attacked a convoy of New Age travelers who were peacefully camped in a meadow near the A303, on their way to the Summer Solstice festival.

When I say attacked, I mean that the police went completely berserk, laying into men and pregnant women with truncheons, and smashing up their caravans, in a premeditated assault that shocked The Observer's Nick Davies, one of the few reporters present that day, who wrote how

' There was glass breaking, people screaming, black smoke towering out of burning caravans and everywhere there seemed to be people being bashed and flattened and pulled by the hair... men, women and children were led away, shivering, swearing, crying, bleeding, leaving their homes in pieces... Over the years I had seen all kinds of horrible and frightening things and always managed to grin and write it. But as I left the Beanfield, for the first time, I felt sick enough to cry.'

Kim Sabido, a reporter with ITN news, also witnessed the scene, and delivered a report to camera, that was not shown on tv that night, in which he declared:

'What we--the ITN camera crew and myself as a reporter--have seen in the last 30 minutes here in this field has been some of the most brutal police treatment of people that I've witnessed in my entire career as a journalist. The number of people who have been hit by policemen, who have been clubbed whilst holding babies in their arms in coaches around this field, is yet to be counted.'

All this was fairly normal behavior back then. As Police Review reported unproblematically only a few days later, the operation against the Travellers ' had been planned for several months and lessons in rapid deployment learned from the miners' strike were implemented.'

This 'battle' was one incident in what became an annual summer ritual, in which police harassed the Traveller convoys and confiscated their vehicles. All this was done in order to eradicate a minority group that was regarded by the Thatcher government as troublesome and unacceptable social deviants.

The official attitude towards them was summed up by Thatcher's Home Secretary Douglas Hurd the following year, who called the Travellers 'nothing more than a band of medieval brigands who have no respect for the law or the rights of others.' That same year Thatcher declared that she was 'only too delighted to do anything we can to make life difficult for such things as hippy convoys.'

The press naturally followed suit, unleashing a vicious smear campaign against none other than the Earl of Cardigan, secretary of the Marlborough Conservative Association and a local landowner, who witnessed the assault and was strongly critical of the police.

When His Lordship refused to allow police to evict a group of Travellers who remained on his land, the Tory press began to question the sanity of the 'loony lord', with a Times editorial suggesting that he was ' barking mad' - a condition that it described as ' probably hereditary.'

Cardigan successfully sued five newspapers who had accused him of making up his testimony against the police. Out of 440 Travellers arrested in the beanfield that day, 24 took Wiltshire Police to court court for wrongful arrest, assault and criminal damage, and eventually won their case at Winchester Crown Court in 1991.

This is how things were done when the Iron Lady was in her prime, and New Age Travellers were not only ones to feel the weight of police truncheons in the great social laboratory that Britain became during those halcyon years.

But the 'Battle of the Beanfield' in its way encapsulated in so many ways the essential characteristics of Thatcherism; the mean-spirited bigotry; the narrow chauvinism and intolerance; the routine use of police violence to suppress protest, dissent or difference or simply to impose social uniformity and conformity on people who challenged the prevailing social and political consensus, either by their actions or simply by their lifestyle.

All of which is worth remembering, the next time you hear someone talking about Margaret Thatcher's deep love of freedom and the wondrous transformation that she wrought on British society, whose consequences we are all still living with.