A Criminal Culture?
“You have to realise that the events at Stonehenge polluted the reputation of festival goers in the eyes of Wiltshire Police.” I looked around the tent to see how Inspector Hunt’s words would be received by those attending the question and answer session. There was not a flicker of dissent. Two minutes later the assemblage gave police a round of applause after being told how Wiltshire constabulary had ‘generously’ reduced their asking price for festival policing from £32,000 to £10,000.
This was the Big Green Gathering 1995, with no sound systems, no music licence, no bars; entirely powered by sun and wind. The one minor skirmish over the entire long weekend brought nine riot police on site.
“We were totally pissed off,” a festival security guard told Squall. “It was nothing but one bloke who’d had one too many cans of beer, we could have dealt with it no problem but the riot police insisted on coming on.”
The organisers paid the £10,000. They also paid for a marquee from which the police earned their easy overtime money by searching people coming in.
“Basically it’s a protection racket,” said festival co-organiser Jean Viddler. “The police are saying: ‘If you don’t pay us, your event won’t happen’.”
It was all very much a far cry from the 10th consecutive Stonehenge Free Festival that had taken place in the same county eleven years earlier. By 1984, the Stonehenge Solstice celebration had become the apex of a burgeoning festival scene, attracting an estimated 30,000 people, with many more visiting the site during its month long celebration. Entirely unlicensed, unpoliced and free from the profit motivation that drives modern day commercial festivals, it was one of the great people-led social experiments of modern times. The festival existed in sharp contrast to the vacuous modern political rhetoric about ‘community’, for despite its many foibles, it was a genuine example of people working through the realities of the word.
The authorities, however, hated it with a vengeance and the following year inaugurated a new era of intolerance with blood.
The Battle of the Beanfield
It is difficult to convey the extent and affect of the berserk circumstances that occurred on June 1st 1985, but its socio-political ramifications were immense.
A convoy of Travellers’ vehicles left an impromptu park-up site in Savernake Forest to head towards Stonehenge. Seven miles from the Stones, and still some way out of the newly imposed four and half mile High Court exclusion order, police blocked the convoy with three lorry loads of gravel. After a short stand-off, the acting Deputy Chief Constable of Wiltshire, Lionel Grundy, gave orders for his men to begin attacking the vehicles and arresting drivers. When word swept through the convoy that police were smashing windscreens at the front and the back of the line of vehicles, Travellers pulled their vehicles off the A303 and into an adjacent grass field. At this stage, many Travellers were keen to return to the Savernake Forest site, but were told by Wiltshire Police that those wishing to leave the scene could only do so without their vehicles (homes).
After a tense wait, the pressure cooker finally exploded with over 1,000 police drawn from five constabularies charging into the field wielding truncheons.
In an effort to escape, the convoy drove from the grass field into the adjacent Beanfield looking for a way out. The huge numbers of by now hysterical policemen charged in behind them to commit their now infamous carnage.
Public knowledge of the events of that day are still limited by the fact that only a small number of journalists were present in the Beanfield at the time. Most, including the BBC television crew, had obeyed the police directive to stay behind police lines at the bottom of the hill “for their own safety”.
One of the few journalists to ignore police advice and attend the scene was Nick Davies, Home Affairs correspondent for The Observer. He wrote: “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.”
The only national television camera crew in the Beanfield was from ITN. Reporter Kim Sabido spoke to camera: “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… There must surely be an enquiry.”
However, when the item was nationally broadcast on ITN news later that day, Sabido’s voice-over had been removed and replaced with a dispassionate narrator. The worst film footage was also edited out. When approached for the footage not shown on the news, ITN claimed it was missing. “When I got back to ITN during the following week and I went to the library to look at all the rushes, most of what I’d thought we’d shot was no longer there,” recalls Sabido. “From what I’ve seen of what ITN has provided since, it just disappeared, particularly some of the nastier shots.”
Some but not all of the missing footage has since surfaced on bootleg tapes and was incorporated into the Operation Solstice documentary shown on Channel Four in 1991.
Photographic evidence is also scant. Ben Gibson, a freelance photographer working for The Observer that day, was arrested in the Beanfield after photographing riot police smashing their way into a Traveller’s coach. He was later acquitted of charges of obstruction although the intention behind his arrest had been served by removing him from the scene. Most of the negatives from the film he managed to shoot disappeared from The Observer‘s archives during an office move.
Fellow photographer Tim Malyon narrowly avoided the same fate: “Whilst attempting to take pictures of one group of officers beating people with their truncheons, a policeman shouted out to ‘get him’ and I was chased. I ran and was not arrested.” Tim Malyon’s negatives have also been lost with only a few prints surviving.
One unusual eye-witness to the Beanfield nightmare was the Earl of Cardigan, secretary of the Marlborough Conservative Association and manager of Savernake Forest (on behalf of his father the Marquis of Ailesbury). He had travelled along with the convoy on his motorbike accompanied by fellow Conservative Association member John Moore. As the Travellers had left from land managed by Cardigan, the pair thought “it would be interesting to follow the events personally”. Wearing crash helmets to disguise their identity, they witnessed what Cardigan described to Squall as “unspeakable” police violence.
Cardigan subsequently provided eye-witness testimonies of police behaviour during prosecutions brought against Wiltshire Police.
These included descriptions of a heavily pregnant woman with “a silhouette like a zeppelin” being “clubbed with a truncheon” and riot police showering a woman and child with glass. “I had just recently had a baby daughter myself so when I saw babies showered with glass by riot police smashing windows, I thought of my own baby lying in her cradle 25 miles away in Marlborough,” recalls Cardigan.
After the Beanfield, Wiltshire Police approached Lord Cardigan to gain his consent for an immediate eviction of the Travellers remaining on his Savernake Forest site.
“They said they wanted to go into the campsite ‘suitably equipped’ and ‘finish unfinished business’. Make of that phrase what you will,” says Cardigan. “I said to them that if it was my permission they were after, they did not have it. I did not want a repeat of the grotesque events that I’d seen the day before.”
Instead, the site was evicted using court possession proceedings, allowing the Travellers a few days recuperative grace.
As a prominent local aristocrat and Tory, Cardigan’s testimony held unusual sway, presenting unforeseen difficulties for those seeking to cover up and re-interpret the events at the Beanfield.
In an effort to counter the impact of his testimony, several national newspapers began painting him as a ‘loony lord’, questioning his suitability as an eye-witness and drawing farcical conclusions from the fact that his great-great grandfather had led the charge of the light brigade. The Times editorial on June 3rd claimed that being “barking mad was probably hereditary”.
As a consequence, Lord Cardigan successfully sued The Times, The Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror for claiming that his allegations against the police were false and for suggesting that he was making a home for hippies. He received what he describes as “a pleasing cheque and a written apology” from all of them. His treatment by the press was ample indication of the united front held between the prevailing political intention and media backup, with Lord Cardigan’s eye-witness account as a serious spanner in the plotted works: “On the face of it they had the ultimate establishment creature—land-owning, peer of the realm, card-carrying member of the Conservative Party—slagging off police and therefore by implication befriending those who they call the powers of darkness,” says Cardigan. “I hadn’t realised that anybody that appeared to be supporting elements that stood against the establishment would be savaged by establishment newspapers. Now one thinks about it, nothing could be more natural. I hadn’t realised that I would be considered a class traitor; if I see a policeman truncheoning a woman I feel I’m entitled to say that it is not a good thing you should be doing. I went along, saw an episode in British history and reported what I saw.”
Largely as a result of his testimony, police charges against members of the convoy were dismissed in the local magistrates’ courts. However, there was no public inquiry. Of the 440 Travellers taken into custody that day, 24 went through the gruelling five year process of taking Wiltshire Police to court for wrongful arrest, assault and criminal damage. They finally won a four month court case at Winchester Crown Court in 1991, but their compensation was entirely swallowed by the legal costs incurred in the process. As Lord Gifford QC, the Travellers’ legal representative, put it: “It left a very sour taste in the mouth”. To some of those at the brunt end of the truncheon charge it left a devastating legacy.
Alan Lodge, a veteran of many free festivals was one of the 24 Travellers who ‘successfully’ took Wiltshire Police to court following the Beanfield incident: “There was one guy who I trusted my children with in the early ’80s—he was a potter. After the Beanfield I wouldn’t let him anywhere near them. I saw him, a man of substance, at the end of all that nonsense wobbled to the point of illness and evil. It turned all of us and I’m sure that applies to the whole travelling community. There were plenty of people who had got something very positive together who came out of the Beanfield with a world view of ‘fuck everyone’.”
The berserk nature of the police violence drew obvious comparisons with the coercive police tactics employed on the miners’ strike the year before. Many observers claimed the two events provided strong evidence that government directives were para-militarising police responses to crowd control. Indeed, the confidential Wiltshire Police Operation Solstice Report released to plaintiffs during the resulting Crown Court case, states: “‘Counsel’s opinion regarding the police tactics used in the miners’ strike to prevent a breach of the peace was considered relevant.”
The news section of Police Review, published seven days after the Beanfield, stated: “The Police operation had been planned for several months and lessons in rapid deployment learned from the miners’ strike were implemented.”
The manufactured reasoning behind such heavy-handed tactics was best summed up in a laughable passage from the confidential police report on the Beanfield: “There is known to be a hierarchy within the convoy; a small nucleus of leaders making the final decisions on all matters of importance relating to the convoy’s activities. A second group who are known as the ‘lieutenants’ or ‘warriors’ carry out the wishes of the convoy leader, intimidating other groups on site.” If the coercive policing used during the miners strike was a violent introduction to Thatcher’s mal-intention towards union activity, the Battle of the Beanfield was a similarly severe introduction to a new era of intolerance of Travellers.
Manufacturing a Case for Public Order Law
At the 1995 Big Green Gathering Squall approached Inspector Hunt, a member of Wiltshire Police force for 20 years, and asked: “Is there any acknowledgement in your constabulary that the events of the Battle of the Beanfield seriously polluted the reputation of Wiltshire Police in the eyes of festival goers.”
Persistence finally drew a reluctant answer: “Look, Stonehenge Festival grew too large and out of control, the Battle of the Beanfield was just the beginning of the process of dealing with it. The laws that came after were even more effective.”
Indeed the following year, saw the imposition of the Public Order Act 1986, a new law giving police powers to break up any gathering of 12 vehicles or over. This new legislation had serious implications for both festivals and Traveller sites all over the country; the multi-tactic war to eradicate Travellers and an emerging alternative economy had truly begun.
On June 3rd that year Douglas Hurd, then Home Secretary, described the Travellers as “nothing more than a band of medieval brigands who have no respect for the law or the rights of others.”
On June 5th, Margaret Thatcher told the nation that her government was “only too delighted to do anything we can to make life difficult for such things as hippy convoys”. On the same day, a cabinet committee was formed to discuss new legislation to deal with Travellers and festivals. Chaired by Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, it comprised of the Secretaries of State for Transport, Environment, Health and Social Security, and Agriculture. Meanwhile, the convoy assembling to celebrate that year’s Solstice was chased around several counties by both police and right wing media outrage, before finally finding some temporary recuperative respite on a site at Stoney Cross in the New Forest.
Four days later, Hampshire Police mounted the 4am ‘Operation Daybreak’ to clear the Stoney Cross site. Sixty four convoy members were arrested and 129 vehicles impounded after police came on site armed with Department of Transport files on every vehicle. The police also came armed with care orders for the Travellers’ children, though a tip off had reached the camp beforehand and the children had been removed.
The Battle of the Beanfield, and the increasingly hostile political climate that followed, had a dramatic affect on the travelling community, frightening away many of the families integral to the community balance of the festival circuit. In 1987, people stood on the tarmac beside Stonehenge having walked the eight mile distance from an impromptu site at Cholderton. As clouds smothered the Solstice sunrise, those who had walked the distance were kept on the road, separated from the Stones by rows of riot police and bales of razor wire. The anger mounted and scuffles broke out. The following year the anger was tangibly increased and once again at Solstice dawn there were some who found the situation too unacceptable. This time the scuffles were more prevalent with concerted attempts being made to break through the police cordon. Secreted around the area, however, were thousands of waiting riot police and, as the anger of the penned in crowd grew, numberless uniforms came flooding down the hill to disperse the crowd with a liberal usage of truncheons and riot shields. Andy Smith—now editor of Festival Eye—finally received a £10,000 out of court settlement from Wiltshire Police this year for a truncheon wound to the head received after he tripped and fell at Stonehenge in 1988. In the years following the event, he was diagnosed as suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. “I’d had recurrent dreams about the episode and after eight years of raking over it, I needed to put the event behind me.”
The numbers of people prepared to travel to Stonehenge and face this treatment naturally dwindled, resulting in a concentration of those who were prepared for confrontation in defence of what was considered as a right to celebrate solstice at Stonehenge. Successive huge police operations backed by the Public Order Act 1986, have become stricter and stricter in attempts to stop anyone from reaching the Stone circle at Solstice. There are still a few however, who hug hedgerows and dart between the beams of police helicopters in order to be in view of the Solstice sunrise at Stonehenge.
Destroying the Alternative Economy
Up until 1985, the free festival circuit had provided the economic backbone of all year round itinerancy. Traditionally the three cardinal points in the festival circuit were the May bank holiday, the Solstice and the August bank holiday. Without the need for advertising, festival goers knew to look out for these dates knowing a festival would be taking place somewhere. The employment of two bank holidays as specific festival times was designed to allow workers the opportunity of attending a festival without the inevitable bleary Monday back at work. The number of festivals in-between these cardinal points also blossomed, giving rise to the possibility of travelling from one to the other (with choice) over the entire long summer. By selling crafts, services, performance busking, tat and assorted gear, Travellers provided themselves with an alternative economy lending financial viability to an itinerant culture.
Evidence suggests that the political campaign to eradicate festivals was aimed at breaking this economy.
Indeed, a working party set up by the Department of Health and Social Security published a report on Itinerant Claimants in March 1986 stating: “Local offices of the DHSS have experienced increasing problems in dealing with claims from large groups of nomadic claimants over the past two or three years. Matters came to a head during the summer of 1985 when several large groups converged on Stonehenge for a festival that had been banned by the authorities. The resulting well publicised confrontation with the police was said to have disrupted the normal festival economy and large numbers of claims to Supplementary Benefit were made.”
“As soon as they scared away the punters it destroyed the means of exchange,” recalls Alan Lodge. “Norman Tebbit went on about getting on your bike and finding employment whilst at the same time being part of the political force that kicked the bike from under us.”
In the years that followed, the right-wing press made much of dole-scrounging Travellers, with no acknowledgement that the engineered break-up of the festival economy was largely responsible.
Another ramification of this tactic was even more insidious and ugly.
At the entrance gate to the 1984 Stonehenge Free Festival a burnt out car bore testament to the levels of self-policing emerging from the social experiment. The sign protruding from the wreckage proclaimed: “This was a smack dealer’s car”.
Dispossessed of their once thriving economy and facing incessant and increasing harassment and eviction, the breakdown of community left Travellers prone to a destructive force potentially more devastating than anything directly forced by the authorities.
“At one time smack wasn’t tolerated on the road at all,” recalls mother of six, Decker Lynn. “Certainly on festival sites, if anybody was selling or even using it they were just put off site full stop.”
Heroin, the great escape to oblivion, found the younger elements of a fractured community prone to its clutches and its use spread like myxamatosis. Once again Traveller families were forced to vacate sites that became ‘dirty’, further imbalancing the battered communities and creating a split between ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ sites.
“I don’t park on big sites anymore,” says Lynn who still lives in her double-decker bus. “Heroin is something that breaks up a community because people become so self-centred they don’t give a damn about their neighbours.”
Many Travellers report incidents of blatant heroin dealing going untouched by police, whilst other Travellers on the same site were prosecuted for small amounts of hashish. The implication of their claims were that the authorities recognised that if heroin took hold of the travelling community, their designs on its destruction would take care of itself.
“So many times people got away with it and there were very few busts for smack,” recalls Lynn. “They must know smack is the quickest way to divide a community; united we stand and divided we don’t.”
The other manifestation of community disruption was the emergence of the so called ‘brew crew’. These were mainly angry young Travellers feeding themselves on a diet of Special Brew and developing a penchant for nihilism, blagging and neighbourly disrespect. Whilst festival culture was healthy, the travelling community could cope; once broken up however, the community had problems dealing with the exodus.
“To start with it was contained,” says Decker Lynn. “Every family had its problems but the brew crew was a very small element around 1986, and very much contained by the families that were around. But there was a large number of angry young people pouring out of the cities with brew and smack and the travelling community couldn’t cope with the numbers.”
The so called ‘brew crew’ caused constant disruption for the festivals still surviving on the decimated circuit and provided an obvious target for slander-hungry politicians and right-wing media, with the entire scene regularly painted with the inevitable all inclusive black brush.
Raves and the New Blood
Towards the end of the ’80s a cultural phenomenon began to emerge around the country resulting in an injection of new blood and economy to the festival scene. Rave parties were similar to free festivals in that they were unlicensed events in locations kept secret until the last possible moment. Such events offered similar opportunities for adventure and began attracting huge numbers of young people from the cities. This scene grew dramatically. Where some of these parties differed from the free festivals was that they were organised by groups such as Sunrise who would charge an entry fee and consequently make large amounts of money in the process. Not all such rave parties were of this nature however, and the free festival scene began to merge with the rave party scene producing a hybrid with new dynamism.
Not everyone on the free festival scene was pleased with the consequences of this festi-rave fusion however.
“One of the main things I liked about festivals was going around fires and trucks listening to accordions and talking to people,” recalls Alan Lodge. “When the ravers arrived, I couldn’t hear anything other than the beat. A mass influx of young ravers who were not clued up as to country life did attract a lot of unwelcome attention to Travellers, but without them the festival scene would have finished in ’91 and no-one these days would know what we were talking about.”
Others found renewed enthusiasm in the cultural mutation. Having attended free festivals since 1984 and lived on the road intermittently during that period, Steve Redshaw welcomed the new blood: “Towards the end of the ’80s things were getting bad on the festival circuit. Then raves revitalised the scene and I got my faith back.”
Once again, political attention was now targeted against these new impromptu rave events, resulting in the Entertainment (Increased Penalties) Act 1990. Introduced by John Major’s Personal Private Secretary, Graham Bright, this private member’s bill brought in massive fines of up to £20,000 for the organisers of unlicensed events. Once again this legislation had a dramatic affect on the free festival/rave scene, pushing event organisation into the hands of large commercial promoters with the necessary sums required to pay for licences and policing.
“By 1993 the laws were having their effect on the free rave scene,” observes Steve Redshaw. “Dance music then moved into clubs and became more exclusive.” The nature of festival promotion consequently swung away from a community-based orientation, as businessmen and commercial club owners cashed in on the existing public desire for adventurous festival/parties in the countryside. According to Tony Hollingsworth, ex-events promoter for the GLC and now part of the multi-million pound commercial festival outfit Tribute: “The motivation behind these festivals is no longer passion, it is commerce.” Relative to the people-led festivals, the commercial festival scene offers little more than another shopping experience, where an attendant wallet is valued and encouraged far more than participation.
By 1992 leaked documents from Avon and Somerset Constabulary demonstrated the existence of Operation Nomad. Force Operational Order 36/92 marked ‘In Confidence’, revealed: “With effect from Monday 27th April 1992, dedicated resources will be used to gather intelligence in respect of the movement of itinerants and travellers and deal with minor acts of trespass.” An intelligence unit set up by Avon and Somerset produced regular Operation Nomad bulletins, listing personal details on Travellers and regular festival goers unrelated to any criminal conviction. A Force Operational Order issued by the Chief Constable also stated: “Resources will be greatly enhanced for the period Thursday 21st May to Sunday 24th May inclusive in relation to the anticipated gathering of Travellers in the Chipping Sodbury area.”
This item referred to the annual Avon Free Festival which had been occurring in the area around the May bank holiday for several years, albeit in different locations. However, 1992 was the year Avon and Somerset Police intended to put a full stop to it. As a result the thousands of people travelling to the area for the expected Festival were shunted into neighbouring counties by Avon and Somerset’s Operation Nomad police manoeuvres.
The end result was the impromptu Castlemorton Common Festival, another pivotal event in the recent history of festival culture.
West Mercia Police claim they had no idea that an event might happen in their district, the truth of which relies on the unlikely situation that Avon and Somerset Police did not inform their neighbouring constabulary of Operation Nomad. In the event, a staggering 30,000 Travellers, ravers and festival goers gathered almost overnight on Castlemorton Common to hold a free festival that flew in the face of the Public Order Act 1986 and the Entertainment (Increased Penalties) Act 1990. It was a massive celebration and the biggest of its kind since the bountiful days of the Stonehenge Free Festival. West Mercia Police claimed that due to the speed with which it coalesced, they were powerless to stop it.
However, the authorities used Castle-morton in a way that led people to suggest it had been at least partly engineered. After all, a large number of people had been shunted into the area by Operation Nomad, was it really likely that West Mercia police were unaware of this? The right-wing press published acres of crazed and damning coverage of the event, including the classic front page Daily Telegraph headline: “Hippies fire flares at Police”. The following morning’s Daily Telegraph editorial read: “New Age, New Laws” and within two months, Sir George Young, then Minister for Housing, confirmed that new laws against Travellers were imminent “in reaction to the increasing level of public dismay and alarm about the behaviour of some of these groups.”
Indeed, the outcry following Castlemorton provided the basis for the most draconian law yet levelled against alternative British culture. Just as the Public Order Act 1986 followed the events at Stonehenge in 1985, so the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 began its journey in 1992, pumped with the manufactured outrage following Castlemorton. By the time it reached statute two years later, it included criminal sanctions against assembly, outdoor unlicensed music events, unauthorised camping, and ‘aggravated trespass’. The law also reduced the number of vehicles which could gather together from twelve (as stipulated in the Public Order Act 1986) to six.
The news-manufacture used to prepare the public palate for the coming law was incessant, with media descriptions of Travellers including “hordes of marauding locusts” (Daily Telegraph), and “These foul pests must be controlled” (Daily Mail).
Police Surveillance and Benefit Clampdowns
The year after Castlemorton Common, the police set up Operation Snapshot, an intelligence-gathering exercise on raves and Travellers, designed to establish a database of personal details, registration numbers, Traveller sites and movements. This information was used as a backbone for an ongoing intelligence operation begun by the Southern Central Intelligence Unit (SCIU), operated from Devizes in Wiltshire and initially co-ordinated by PC Malcolm Keene. The SCIU held regular meetings with representatives of all the constabularies of Britain.
Leaked documents revealed that Operation Snapshot had estimated there to be around 2,000 Traveller’s vehicles and 8,000 Travellers in the UK. In the minutes of a meeting held at Devizes on March 30th 1993, the objectives of the operation included the development of “a system whereby intelligence could be taken into the control room, and the most up-to-date intelligence was to hand”… “capable of high-speed input and retrieval and dissemination of information”. The meeting was attended by constabulary representatives from Bedfordshire, Avon and Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Dyfed-Powys, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, South Wales, Gwent, Staffordshire, Thames Valley, Warwickshire, Surrey, Suffolk, West Mercia, West Midlands, Ministry of Defence and the National Criminal Intelligence Service (Hampshire and Essex sent apologies).
They were all asked and all agreed to provide the Southern Central Intelligence Unit with “any information, no matter how small on New Age Travellers or the Rave scene”. The leaked minutes revealed the database was designed to hold one million items of information.
After a short period the Northern New Age Traveller Co-ordination Unit, designed to cover the north of Britain, was established and operated from Penrith in Cumbria.
Further monitoring information was gathered via social security offices. The working party report on Itinerant Claimants prepared for the DHSS in 1986 advised that “in the interests of advance warning and the safety of staff, we recommend better liaison with the police.” A 1993 internal Benefits Agency bulletin (issue 24/93) headed ‘New Age Travellers’ and marked “not to be released into the public domain”, stated: “Offices will be aware of the adverse reaction from the media following the treatment of claims from this client group last summer [Castlemorton]. Ministers are concerned that the Benefits Agency and Employment Services take all necessary steps to ensure that claims from this group are scrutinised carefully.”
The bulletin reports that a National Task Force has been set up to “monitor the movements of such groups of Travellers” and to “inform relevant District managers of their approach and numbers”. In the back of the bulletin is a list of telephone numbers for all the regional police contacts in both the Northern New Age Traveller Co-ordination Unit and the Southern Central Intelligence Unit. Every constable in the country, including the Ministry of Defence, had at least one but usually several, such co-ordinators.
Also included in the bulletin was a possible itinerary of festivals for Summer 1993. In 1995, the Benefit Agency conducted a census of New Age Traveller benefit claimants including their personal details. A leaked copy of the results suggested there to be 2000 such claimants. In July 1996, more leaked documents revealed that the agency was once again asking regional offices to carry out a census, the results of which are as yet unobtainable. After October 7th 1996, when the Job Seekers Allowance scheme began, benefit may be halted if “appearance” or “attitude” “actively militates against getting a job”. The implications for the further selective targeting of the community are obvious.
The Mutating Aftermath
The extraordinary lengths taken by the authorities to annihilate the new Traveller population in the UK are a testament to the treatment meted out to cultural minorities outside the accepted hegemony.
The use of legislation, intelligence, targeted harassment, benefit clampdowns and news-manufacture have been employed as a multi-tactic approach stretched across a ten year period.
Such strategies are often achieved without public knowledge; with the length of time over which they are employed, diffusing recognition of their mechanism and ultimate intention. What is clear, however, is that rather than seek to democratically accommodate an expanding community culture, Margaret Thatcher’s government and those who replaced her, sought to annihilate it. The social consequences are immense.
The festival circuit, once an evolving people-led celebration and community co-operation, now lies largely in the hands of profit-motivated commercial promoters. Meanwhile, the travelling community, fractionalised by an annihilation strategy, now displays symptoms reminiscent of the inner cities from which many had fled.
Many travellers steered away from the iron-fist climate by moving abroad to countries like Spain, Portugal and France. Many would not or could not flee.
However, despite the worst excesses of the cultural clampdown, Travellers remain secreted all over the country. Many are now in smaller groups, inconspicuous and unregistered if not drawing benefit.
“I don’t think anything should be static,” says Decker Lynn. “We’ve got to grow and we’ve got to move and flow with whatever’s necessary. I’ve got this strong feeling that whatever rules they make there’s always a way round it.”
Indeed for sorted itinerants, necessity breeds ingenious evolution.
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