Michael Hamilton – 1978 Speech on Festivals at Stonehenge

Below is the text of the speech made by Michael Hamilton, the then Conservative MP for Salisbury, in the House of Commons on 31 July 1978.

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for being here at a late hour to consider the problems of Stonehenge. I wish that it had been possible to spare him. But, as he knows, the difficulties arising from the annual solstice celebrations have not abated. It is the Government alone who can improve matters.

In March I wrote to Lady Birk, who has responsibility for ancient monuments, ​ asking her whether I would be on my feet, yet again, in this Chamber after this year’s summer solstice. I asked her whether there were any grounds for believing that what had happened in three-successive years would not recur. In the event, troubles did recur. I cannot speak too highly of the Wiltshire police—of their patience, humanity and efficiency.

Despite the efforts of the police, at dawn on 16th June the same padlocked gate was forced and the same farmer has suffered heavy damage to field and fencing. When I took a look at the situation the following day, I found that the illegal army of festival-goers had already dug in—vehicles, tents, stage, the lot.

The Minister will not be surprised if am critical. His Department owns the monument—and the monument acts as a magnet. Young people are attracted to it from all over the country and the Continent. They know that the main axis of the monument is aligned to the midsummer sunrise at 4.59 a.m. on 21st June. They know that Stonehenge is steeped in mystery and legend. They seek to get as close to it as possible, and that much is not difficult to understand.

Their number runs into thousands. I am told that the invasion is planned and publicised by two communes in Muswell Hill. They arrive for a fortnight, and the Minister knows that there is no sanitation, no water, no firewood, no provision of any kind. The Minister is rightly concerned with the safety of the monument itself. He rings it with dannert wire, a necessity which both he and I regret. But the direct result is that the invading army, unable to penetrate the Minister’s defences, denied the chance to pitch camp within the stone circle, turns off the road a few hundred yards short of but in sight of the monument itself.

The Minister then washes his hands of the whole business. It is, according to Lady Birk’s letter to me,

“a matter for the police and the owners and occupiers of the land.”

Yet, all too correctly, she points out:

“the legal remedies open to owners and occupiers in the case of mass trespass are difficult to bring to bear in time to prevent the trespass from taking place. Neither we nor the police know the identity of the organisers and there is accordingly little prospect of obtaining an injunction to restrain them. Even if one were obtained against some individuals, and served upon them, others would be likely to take their place in promoting the festival.”

Precisely. To put it another way, the law is inadequate. This is an ignoble posture for Government. The Minister rings his own plot with dannert wire, and with all the resources of the State. He then tells the National Trust and its farming tenants to fend for themselves, and in the same breath accepts the total absence of legal remedy available to them.

So the first thing I ask the Minister for tonight is compensation for the farmer who has suffered. The Department’s receipts from the monument exceed £150,000 a year, and I am talking about 1 per cent. of that figure. These are unique circumstances. There is no danger of creating precedents, for there is only one Stonehenge, and its problems are peculiar, not general.

I suggest that the Department should consider claims on an ex gratia basis. I suggest that the ability to claim should be confined solely to farming tenants of National Trust land surrounding the monument. I expect the Minister to accede to this request.

If he tells me that he can find no way of doing so, I shall ask myself what calibre of Ministers are being appointed to the Department today. If a Minister cannot find £2,000 to ensure the good name of his Department, something is seriously wrong.

A year ago the Minister spoke of

“football crowds doing damage to shops and houses on their way to football grounds, in which cases the owners of the grounds cannot be expected to compensate all in the area for something a third party does.”—[Official Report, 27th July, 1977; Vol. 936, c. 905.]

With respect, this is a wholly false analogy, and the Minister knows it.

At Stonehenge the invaders have only one wish—to pitch their tents at the monument and the Minister’s dannert wire prevents them from doing so. His Department is on record as saying,

“We realise, of course, that action to deter trespass on our land may deflect the festival on to other land nearby.”

I have a second proposal. I suggest that in future the Minister should receive the invaders on his own land. He has a lease of some 30 acres, so there is plenty of room. The police will be happy about that. Archaeologically the dangers are no greater than at present. The National Trust is greatly troubled by the whole ​ business, but it would be prepared to agree that one site is less objectionable than others. The great advantage would be that damage to private property would cease.

The Minister cannot have it both ways. Either he receives the tents and vehicles himself, or he assists those who carry the burden instead. His present stance is equivocal, and it does him no credit.

I start from the premise that we cannot go on as we are. I accept that no alternative course is perfect, and I realise that the Minister’s 30 acres are cheek-by-jowl with the monument. This means that for a fortnight visitors will be horrified by the clutter of vehicles and tents close by. I repeat that no alternative course is perfect.

However, I suspect that there is another reason why the Minister shies away from admitting the festival on to his own land. The festival is illegal—it is mass trespass. He cannot condone illegality. To me, that argument is valid the first year. It is less valid the second year. In the third year illegality becomes a recognised feature. After four years the argument about not condoning illegality becomes academic and hypocritical.

Of course I deplore non-observance of the law, but I believe that we must face reality and cannot go on as we are. I believe that the Minister’s attitude, safely behind his barbed wire, is the regrettable attitude of “I’m all right, Jack.” If plans have to be made to hold in reserve and readiness water carts, firewood and what are called “Portaloos”, so be it.

Finally, action is needed here in Parliament. The law is inadequate, yet the Department is silent. I believe that a Bill —the Night Assemblies Bill—would have helped. Surely that measure contained much that was constructive. Was it not regrettable that that Bill should have been talked out at a late stage by some of the Minister’s less responsible colleagues?

I hope that the Minister will say a brief word tonight about his intentions in this respect. I have not time now to deal with the important questions of crowd control and all the rest of it. That must wait. We are deeply proud in Wiltshire to have this great monument, but it is an inheritance which brings practical ​ problems in its train. I hope that the Minister will help.