On June 1st 1985 there took place one of the most significant events in the history of the English working class. But the Battle of the Beanfield has largely been lost in the mists of time. The 1980’s saw set back after setback inflicted on the people by the Tory elite. Disasters such as Hillsborough, the Bradford fire, and numerous transport accidents resulted from criminal negligence by the ruling class who could barely conceal their contempt for ordinary folk. Then there was the Battle of Orgreave that has gone down in popular folklore as the police and army were used as political weapons to quell an uprising in the coal fields.
The miners were the lions of the working class in the ‘eighties and their epic struggle is seared into the souls for some of us of a certain age. But the Battle of the Beanfield has never really secured the attention it deserved due to the demonization of the victims of police brutality by the popular press.
At the time an ITN reporter filed the following comments, “I saw some of the most brutal police treatment of people that I had seen in my entire career as a journalist.” Nick Davies of the Observer said, “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, and leaving their homes in pieces.”
What on earth had happened? Why did it happen and why should we care now, 30 year later?
The 1973 oil shock caused the end of the so called post war economic boom. Although if you were part of the inner city working class it was difficult to see how this benefitted you. Ken Loach’s films, “Up the Junction” (1965) and “Cathy Come Home” (1966) shone a light into the suffering and misery of life for those who were beyond the margins such as those characters who appeared in teenage dramatist Shelagh Delaney’s masterpiece, “A Taste of Honey” (1958). Life was often nasty and brutal. The state of the UK housing stock was a disgrace and had been exacerbated (albeit with good intentions) by the smashing up of communities who were thrown onto high rise, out of town estates.
The 1970 Heath Government lasted just three and half years but did untold damage to industrial relations culminating with its spectacular implosion at the hands of the miners in February 1974. Mass mobilisation by the workers in 1972 had shown the way. Heath had capitulated to the miners as a young Yorkshire firebrand named Arthur Scargill delivered thousands of supporters to the Midlands coking plant at Saltley. The blockade threatened to turn the lights out across England on a long term basis forcing Heath to accept a humiliating defeat at the hands of organised labour. When the Tories looked for revenge in 1974 the unions were ready. As the three day week crippled the UK Heath asked the country to go to the polls that February to answer the question, “Who governs?” The answer was a resounding, “not you mate!” and the removal van appeared at Number Ten to collect Heath’s beloved piano.
Mass action and solidarity won the day.
Labour Party leader Harold Wilson returned to Number Ten but quit just two years into his third term. His successor, in an effort to appease international capitalism, implemented an early form of what became Thatcherite monetarism. James Callaghan’s answer to a creaking industrial base was not investment and reform. It was cuts, wage freezes and attacks on the low paid. The unions mobilised and whilst Sunny Jim took an ill advised dip in the Caribbean during the 1979 G7 Summit, workers came out on strike in their droves. The Government dug its heels in. “Crisis, what crisis?” intoned the Prime Minister on landing at Heathrow. Unsurprisingly the Government fell and the Thatcher era began.
The Iron Lady had noted carefully where her predecessors in Downing Street had gone wrong. She was determined not to repeat these mistakes. Organised workers with a sense of solidarity and community were anathema to her mission to create a low skill, low wage, high profit economy. They must be softened up and then steam rollered into simpering submission never to rise again and threaten UK capitalism.
Thatcher dipped her toe in the waters of conflict by taking on the miners in 1981. The Unions pushed back against mass redundancies announced by the National Coal Board that February. Instead Thatcher was forced into a massive cut to imported coal in order for the National Grid to buy more UK produced coal.
The lesson was clear, at least to the Tories. They must break workers solidarity. The means they used was to create the Debt Industry, a legacy we are suffering so catastrophically from in our era.
Here’s how it works. Get individuals and families to buy their own homes. Sounds great. But here’s the thing. If your boss decides to freeze your pay or change your working conditions there’s nothing you can do about it. Why? Because the mortgage companies won’t accept going on strike as a reason for none payment.
As a proud homeowner you will naturally have the life style to go with it. Cars, dishwashers and fitted bedrooms are bought on credit. Fine if you’re working but once again going on strike won’t wash with the lenders.
Previous generations had dabbled with credit, but the Tories encouraged an absolute binge to occur.
Council properties were flogged off first in Nottinghamshire and Derby. As a result when Maggie set the trap with the announcement of a massive pit closure programme in early 1984, there was no way these miners would come out in support of their Yorkshire comrades. They had great sympathy, but they also had great mortgages and great lines of credit to worry about.
Thus the summer of 1984 saw the miners fighting each other on picket lines across the country, rather than fighting the common Tory enemy.
The set piece of what became known as the Dispute came at the Battle of Orgreave in June 1984 when a paramilitary police force destroyed a Saltley re run outside a South Yorkshire coking plant. The police ran amok and ably abetted by the Tory press and the BBC (who deliberately reversed the footage to show miners attacking the police) public opinion was poisoned against the strikers. Fear abounded in pit communities and the regular brutalisation of villages by a now rampant police force was de rigueur as portrayed in Peter Flannery’s seminal TV series, “Our Friends in the North” (1996) and the film “Billy Elliot” (2001) directed by Stephen Daldry.
The Labour Party pulled the rug from under Scargill as leader Neil Kinnock (the son of a miner) sought to make the Party, “electable”. He cited the biased press coverage of picket line intimidation and fell for the canard of a national ballot when the strike had all the democratic credibility it needed. The TUC similarly failed the miners and the strike collapsed a year on with thousands left destitute and forced to burn furniture for heating as all financial support was withdrawn by the state. Thatcher was prepared to starve the kids to break the strike. Just for the record Kinnock’s election “strategy”, which also involved hanging Liverpool Council out to dry produced a crushing defeat in 1987. That went well then.
In the 1970’s many working class kids were out of work and as the 1980’s dawned 20% of UK industrial jobs were lost as monetarist orthodoxy and the withdrawal of the state saw the economy collapse. In July 1981 people were witnessing not only cricketing ashes, but the ashes of city centres as violence gripped the land.
Many people were overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness, others decided to take to the road, quite literally. So the era of the counter culture took to the stage. The sense of solidarity and community spirit so sorely lacking on many estates and towns was to be found in life on the road.
When there is a sense of existential crisis is society people often look backwards to a time when life was simple and straightforward. The 17th Century Diggers and the Leveller Movement harked back to a time of common ownership when the concept of property and power concentrated in a few hands was a future concept.
Even further back we find Geoffrey Chaucer writing about travellers seeking truth and justice in, “The Canterbury Tales” (1475). Eastern culture gives us the travels of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) and Jesus Bar Joseph took to the road for three years.
New Age travellers were following a well beaten track as they moved between festivals and the solstices were major events in the year taking place at Stonehenge. In 1984 police reported that 100,000 had attended the June solstice in Wiltshire. This had been a wholly peaceful event due to the large number of people which diluted previous occasions where biker gangs had been involved.
The Tories hated the counter culture with venom and were eagerly aided by the putrid and rancid “reporting” of the right wing press. New Age Travellers were the root cause of all that ailed society. They were firmly now on the radar of the Thatcher Government and the newly paramilitary police who had been battle hardened during the miners’ strike.
By spring 1985 the police were ready. Armed with a High Court Injunction against a repeat of the 1984 the trap was set.
A self styled “Peace Convoy” of New Age Travellers was on its way to Stonehenge. Numbering around 600 they were stopped on 1st June by 1,300 heavily tooled up police.
During two separate and pre planned waves of attacks the police smashed up the convoy and destroyed the homes of the travellers as we have seen described by the press above. According to The Observer, during the second attack pregnant women and those holding babies were clubbed by police with truncheons and the police were hitting “anybody they could reach”. When some of the travellers tried to escape by driving away through the fields, The Observer states that, “the police threw truncheons, shields, fire-extinguishers and stones at them in an attempt to stop them.”
An astonishing 537 people were arrested which writer Stuart Maconie claims was the largest number of arrests at a single event in UK legal history.
In 1991 the police lost a big legal case and all the arrests were quashed. Disgracefully the Judge would not award costs to the victims al all £24,000 in compensation was swallowed up. No police were charged.
When we look at the 1980’s, and for those of us that lived through that decade we see defeat after defeat for the working class. But the reality is that on three occasions the establishment was on the brink of defeat. Firstly during the miners’ strike, then through the actions of Liverpool City Council and the Battle of the Beanfield saw the authorities have to wheel out the full weight of the police in a fight they simply could not lose.
As a result the state took full measures to ensure such events could not replicate the success of the 1990 Poll Tax campaign which saw mass action drive a sitting prime minister from power. We shall return to this another time.
Firstly came the Public Order Act of 1986 of which Part Two basically prohibited public assembly in the form of marches and convoys. It gave local police the power to ban demonstrations with no recourse to review by a Judge. It gave them power to stop people travelling in cars or coaches if an officer thought there was a chance they may be up to no good.
If this wasn’t draconian enough, the Tories passed the 1994 Criminal Justice Act. Not only was the right to silence abolished but whole lifestyle choices were effectively banned. From football fans to hunt saboteurs the Tories were after anyone who refused to conform. Labour MP’s shockingly failed to join 42 Tory MP’s in voting to equalise the age of consent for the LGBT community.
In a laughable example of being totally out of touch Michael Howard wanted to stop rave gatherings by using this definition of music to include “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.”
“The Devil Makes Work for Idle Hands”. This philosophy is at the heart of the Tory/ New Labour agenda. If people are too busy trying to make ends meet via zero hour contract jobs and/or scrabbling around to find work with the fear of sanctions they simply won’t have time to organise and question what is going on around them.
This time deficit is perhaps the biggest legacy of the 1980’s along with keeping people massively in debt as a means to tie them into society. The onward push of consumerism and our constant need for “stuff” to make us buy into the façade of happiness destroys at root the ability of people to process what is happening to them, and crucially to those around them.
If you are a 23 year old just out of third level education with a zero hours job and tied to a mobile phone contract, Sky, broadband, HP repayments, extortionate rent and the threat of student loan repayments if you obtain full time work, where is your time going to be spent?
There is no chance of a counter culture resurgence, mass strikes and disobedience unless we can somehow get people organised. It’s a long hard and sometimes debilitating slog but there are shards of hope with our young people and Time For Change is here. Our young people did us proud by organising a mass demo on June 20th. From small acorns and all that…..