Monday, 25 July 2011

Oliver's Army

The New Age Traveller movement of the 1980's and 1990's provided one of the great moral panics of its era, equivalent in many respects to the Miner's Strike, but having a significance that stretched further back into the past and that will no doubt echo much further into the future. Originating from the Free Festival scene of the early Seventies, the winding convoys of itinerant drop-outs, guardians of a hippy ideology that valued peace and love and rejected conventional notions of property ownership, were swelled by the influx of newly unemployed youth that marked the dawn of the Thatcher era.

Sometimes consciously, but mostly unconsciously, the movement echoed the last great upheaval in conventions of settlement in English history - the great dispersement of "masterless men" in the decades prior to the Civil War in the mid-17th Century. The explosion in the population that had begun in the early 16th Century had by that time reached a point where the traditional feudal relationship between lord and manservant was no longer tenable - the feudal estates could no longer absorb the growing local populations, and the close bonds of loyalty that marked a static agricultural economy could no longer be maintained. Similarly the craft guilds, faced with a surfeit of journeyman artisans, attempted to protect their markets by excluding craftsmen who weren't in possession of freehold land.

The result was an increasingly mobile population that operated within an informal economy that eschewed the restricted markets governed by official statutes. More dangerously, these masterless men, having severed relationships with conventional hierarchical social structures, and the established church that provided their rationale, were often the carriers of radical religious and political ideas that demanded a thorough restructuring of society. Feeling confident in their ability to organise their own lives, they no longer saw the necessity of an established priesthood to mediate between themselves and God, and often became what were termed "mechanic preachers", deliverers of the Lord's message who earned their living by their own labour, and not from tithes.

It was these men who were to form the backbone of the New Model Army. Although it is nowadays sanitised as being merely the forerunner of the modern professional army, with its emphasis on promotion through ability rather than through social status, it was in fact a true revolutionary army in that it was the foremost forum for the radical ideas of the time. Most of the leading intellectual figures of the English Revolution passed through its ranks as either officers and chaplains, as the freedom of organisation and discussion that it offered proved a magnet to the various dissenting sectarian groups that abounded at the time. In addition, the Army's campaigns across the length and breadth of the country allowed new ideas to be disseminated to an extent not previously possible. A radical egalitarian group like The Levellers, in many ways hostile to the agenda of the Parliament that the Army answered to, could nevertheless use it to further their ideas while at the same time fight the Royalists that were the common enemy.

As the war progressed, these radical groups found themselves ever more alienated from the Puritan ideas of the essentially mercantile class that made up the Parliamentarian front against King Charles. The Puritan rejection of the "sorcery" of the Catholic ideas still existent in the Church Of England, and their doctrine of predestination, with its insistence that wealth and prosperity were God's reward for good works, damned the poor with the double burden that their destitute condition also condemned them in the afterlife, with none of the magical remedies that would have been available from the Medieval church. It was this ideology, the ideology which still forms the bedrock of our social-economic worldview today, that provoked the most extreme radical movements, such as the Diggers, who, adopting communist ideas that had been prevalent in The Middle Ages, took to planting on waste lands regardless of their ownership, and the Ranters, who elevated alcohol, tobacco and whoring to the status of divine absolution, and conducted church services that were thunderous tirades of swearing and blasphemy. It was this sense that the cold economic world offered by the bourgeois Puritans of the Commonwealth, with their relentlessly harsh mechanical-economic emphasis on works, was potentially worse than the one that King Charles ruled, that even led some Levellers to side with the Royalists, who at least drank, smoked and swore.

Oliver Cromwell, though often portrayed today as resolution itself, was in actuality a rather slippery figure. Although he often privately agreed and sympathised with Leveller demands, in action he never failed to support the men of property, and crushed radical dissent violently when necessary. Quaker and Leveller intellectuals such as James Naylor and Gerard Winstanley had delineated ideas of universal suffrage and collective ownership that were years ahead of their time, and often appear radical even today, but it was the Puritan revolution, with its insistence on property rights and the dignity of labour, that was to prevail and shape the centuries to follow. Winstanley himself, surveying the wreckage of the Leveller movement under the Commonwealth, was the first to articulate an idea, merely wishful thinking at the time, that was to flourish among the idealogues of the 19th Century - that scientific and technological advancement would in turn result in social advancement.

It was over these ideas of the sanctity of private land and property, and the necessity of an honest day's work, embedded deeply within the culture for over 300 years, that the New Age Travellers haplessly rode. And this was the reason for the enormous hostility they engendered from the authorities and from the media. The tabloids especially delighted in persecuting the "peace convoys" that snaked from all over Britain towards the West Country each summer. The travellers offended the Protestant ethic on almost every possible level, with their pagan affinity for spirituality and magic, their dishevelled appearance, their ludic sense of fun and aversion to toil (journalists seemed to draw deep satisfaction from alleging that all the travellers were on benefits), and their tendency to set up camp on any criteria except land ownership. Urban Leftists, no strangers to the Protestant ethic themselves, could be equally unsympathetic - The Manic Street Preachers (if only they'd called themselves The Mechanic Street Preachers) notoriously stated that ‘travellers should be rounded up and put on an island’, proving that for all their self-proclaimed erudition, they didn't actually know very much.

The New Age Travellers were pretty much dismissed as a social movement by youth commentators, being too socially amorphous, too scruffy, and lacking in punchy polemicists to matter in a world where The Beastie Boys were the very essence of rebellion. The "crusties" and "dreads" had no-one speaking directly for them, though two bands who were often considered spokesmen on their behalf were New Model Army and The Levellers. Both bands were considered pretty much beyond the pale by critics at the time, though both had sizeable and loyal followings. New Model Army, despite coming from Yorkshire, sang in that strange mixture of Cockney and West Country that everyone imagines old English people spoke in, and recorded puckish anti-authoritarian songs protesting against the likes of the Falklands War, fox hunting, Americanisation and the creeping sense of commercialisation and repression that marked the decade. Undeniably somewhat gauche, they articulated the anxieties of their audience clearly and effectively. The Levellers, dismissed as "Jeremys" by their detractors (Manics again), were more explicit in their identification of the travelling scene with the Civil War period, the splendid "One Way" being pretty much a perfect distillation of the ethos of the original Levellers, who viewed their relationship to God being one of personal revelation, distinct to the individual, and having nothing to do with the generation of worldly rewards that the Puritans held so dear.

The Levellers even wrote a song about the first great act of authoritarian repression against the Travellers. The Battle Of The Beanfield occurred in 1985, when Wiltshire Police, utilising techniques that had already been perfected against the mineworkers, engaged in a pitched battle against a peace convoy that was attempting to set up a festival near Stonehenge. The violent behaviour of the police on the day even caused consternation amongst the watching media, and ended in the arrest of 420 people, which was the largest mass arrest since the Civil War itself. The Castlemorton Common Festival that followed a few years later in 1992 was to prove the last straw for the authorities; the intersection between the New Age and Rave scenes resulted in another tabloid uproar and drug scare, with the result being the panic legislation of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act that effectively saw the end of the outdoor rave scene. The New Age Travellers, in rejecting the norms of modern industrial society, inadvertently opened up questions of land use and property ownership that had lain dormant for centuries, leaving them vulnerable to a level of social repression that they themselves were to find incomprehensible. However, as the industrial West begins its inexhorable decline, and as the technological frontiers that offered the prospect of ever-higher material prosperity begin to contract, the issues of who owns what land, and what they use it for, will once more come to the fore.


Alex Niven said...

Really enjoyed this. The Patrick Keiller films also picked up on the 17th century/Civil War lineage didn't they, around this time, with the Defoe allusion etc?

Phil Knight said...

Haven't seen either of them Alex, so I can't confirm I'm afraid.

I suspect there are loads more Civil War references in the popular culture of the time that could be unearthed. It's a theme that has a persistence (The Clash, Gang Of Four, Chumbawamba and Julian Cope have also alluded to it), although most people only vaguely understand why.

W. Kasper said...

It's interesting how the clampdown on travellers is so rarely mentioned these days, compared to Miners Strike, Greenham Common, Urban riots etc. The criminal justice act was targeted at them as much as it was ravers, if not more so. One of Major's last ditch attempts to be 'populist' by demonizing a scattered community with limited legal protection. I recall at the time that 'hippie hate' informed indifference to it (along with the derision key bands faced, like you mention here). It truly did feel like a case of the city abandoning the country in a lot of ways. It was quite severe 'enclosure' that wasn't defended against as much as it should have been.

Although I do recall a very controversial late 80s TV play about a copper involved in 'the battle of Stonehenge'. It didn't pull any punches with police brutality either (it concludes with him raping his wife at the end - doubt that would be allowed now). It even had a 'right of reply' debate immediately after airing. Wish I remembered the title of it.

Phil Knight said...

In many ways I think this was the most important conflict of the last 30 years in that it's the one that most presages the future. As the current recession/depression really starts to bite (believe me, it hasn't even begun yet), I can see another large wave of dispossed people (esp. the heavily mortgaged) becoming rootless and adopting the traveller lifestyle.

I think this conflict with the New Age Travellers petered out when the employment scene picked up in the late 90's, rather than because of the effectiveness of the CJ&PO Act. As for the city abandoning the country, you're right, but of course this is the kind of affectedness that is only possible in an era of cheap, plentiful energy.

There are a lot of young people now who think the future is going to be full of ever more wonderful entertainment gadgets who are going to find that by the time they're 40 they will be digging out potatoes with their bare hands.

W. Kasper said...

"New Age Travellers petered out when the employment scene picked up in the late 90's"

- Very good point, especially when I think of many former travellers who got 'proper' jobs by the end of the decade. Do you remember how many crusties you'd see begging in cities around the mid-90s? Seems to be the fate Tories designed for them if they never made it to uni, or were childless. Now of course there's different soft govt/media targets to force enclosure upon. Normally located in urban areas. However, around the same as they were targeting travelers, they were started using single mothers as recession scapegoats (borrowing from Reaganism). Like now, except two-parent unemployed families are also demonised for being a bit too settled and 'urban' instead of rootless and mobile according to the instructions of Iain Duncan Smith.

Phil Knight said...

Well of course all this demonology depends on a stable or expanding middle class to consume it, and what we're going to see over the next 2 or 3 decades is the dissolution of this middle class.

In many ways New Labour's expansion of the public sector, for all the venom directed against it from the Right, was a last ditch attempt to preserve the expanded m/c.

I think it's doomed, not necessarily because of the Tories (who will be cutting their own throats if/when they disband it) but simply because the tide of history is receding away from us.

We're in for interesting times, as the old Chinese curse would have it.