Europe’s biggest musical festival is now just a massive authoritarian pigpen, says Brendan O’Neill. No wonder the young are staying away

Most people, when they hear the word Glastonbury, think of mud, drugs, drunkenness, moshing, free love, the lighting up of spliffs, and generally harmless experimentation in a field. Well, they’re right about the mud. Yet far from being a site of hippyish self-exploration, the Glastonbury music festival has become a tightly regimented gathering of middle-class masochists who don’t mind being bossed around by nosey cops and kill-joy greens for three long days.

Glastonbury now resembles a countercultural concentration camp, complete with CCTV cameras and ‘watchtowers’ (their word, not mine), rather than a Woodstock-style attempt to escape ‘The Man’.

This month Glastonbury turns 40. Like all 40-year-olds, it’s having an identity crisis. Run by hippy-cum-businessman Michael Eavis, on his aptly named Worthy Farm, the first Glastonbury festival took place in 1970 and attracted 1,500 hippies. The headline act was Marc Bolan and there was free milk for all. Men with beards and women without bras swayed to and fro in the open air in a desperate bid to preserve the spirit of the Sixties into the 1970s.

This year, starting on 23 June, ‘Glasto’, as some people annoyingly call it, will attract 175,000 people and nothing will be free, not even the milk. The headline acts are Gorillaz, Muse and Stevie Wonder. This represents an ageing Mojo editor’s view of what Good Music is. The line-up is designed to satisfy the thirtysomething, fortysomething, and even geriatric attendees. (As of 2007, Saga Insurance, the insurance firm for older people, has been offering over-50s who have Saga Motorhome Insurance a refund on the money they pay for a motorhome pitch at ‘Glasto’.)

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Michael Eavis has admitted that Glastonbury has become too middle-aged and middle-class. ‘We have to try to get the youngsters back, the 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds,’ he said. ‘The 30- and 40-year-olds who now swarm the festival like overgrown teens desperately seeking kicks are too well-mannered and polite and respectable… which changes the character of it.’

Some say the yoof abandoned Glasto because it became too expensive, because the acts consist of boring, bloated World Music types, because there are other, smaller festivals — V, Reading — where they can watch bands their dads do not like. No doubt these things have contributed to the greying of Glastonbury. But there’s another, underexplored reason: over the years, Europe’s biggest festival has turned into a massive authoritarian pigpen. Attendees are monitored, filmed and lectured — and young people don’t like being hectored by has-been hippies.

Hippyish music festivals used to be no-go zones for the police, and most people accepted that certain things that are not acceptable in everyday life would take place: clothes-shedding, dope-smoking, bed-hopping, stage-diving. Now, the police are invited into Glastonbury with open arms. In 2007, Glastonbury even became the test site for a new kind of policing: cops with cameras attached to the shoulders of their jackets were sent around Glasto’s campsites, and their footage — of revellers having fun and potentially misbehaving — was beamed ‘live’ to a control room. If the police in the control room spotted anything untoward, such as someone sucking on something that looked too fat to be a normal cigarette, they’d rush to the scene, guided by global-positioning system devices sewn into the camp-watching coppers’ jackets. The cops, from the Avon and Somerset Constabulary, were delighted to use Glasto to test out new forms of camera-based policing, but festival attendees were less impressed. ‘Glastonbury is the one place you would expect not to have to worry about being watched,’ said one.

In recent years, the police have also erected ‘covert capture tents’ at Glasto — tents that are left tantalisingly open, with various desired products visible to passers-by — toilet roll, perhaps, or wellington boots. Inside are tiny CCTV cameras, so if anyone does venture inside to nab the booty they will be caught on camera and arrested. I call this entrapment. The Glasto-police say it is an initiative to put ‘the fear of crime back in the criminal’.

According to the festival organisers’ turgid, nine-page Crime Reduction Strategy (I bet they didn’t have one of those in 1970), the reason festoon lighting is used to illuminate the main campsite areas is to reduce those ‘dark spots, where crime is more likely to take place’. The old hippies might have considered a ‘dark spot’ — an unlit, unmonitored, unpoliced area — a potential site for a bit of nookie or some bong-sharing. Today’s hippies see it as a crime hotspot.

The Crime Reduction Strategy also boasts of Glasto’s ‘watchtowers’, which are not staffed by armed guards (at least not yet), but are used to ‘monitor criminal activity and act as a deterrent’. The festival organisers encourage attendees to set up ‘local “neighbourhood watch” agreements with fellow campers’.

When Glasto attendees are not being spied on or entrapped, they’re being lectured about everything from safe sex to health and safety. The official festival guide tells revellers to ‘Practise Safe Sex’, warning them that ‘if you have sex without a condom you risk catching diseases such as gonorrhoea, syphilis or chlamydia’. This new morality of ‘safe sex’, based on the idea that other people are probably diseased, is the polar opposite of ‘free love’, which was based on the idea that exploring other people’s bodies and minds is a fun and uplifting thing to do. The festival guide warns against stage-diving, too, because it ‘may look like fun, but would you like to be dropped and trampled? Don’t put yourself at unnecessary risk.’

Meanwhile, busybody groups such as Greenpeace, Oxfam and the Samaritans can be seen everywhere at Glasto, lecturing attendees about their role in destroying the planet, their ignorance of African poverty, and the importance of good mental health.

Is it really any wonder teens don’t bother with it anymore? They get enough of this health-obsessed, risk-averse, sex-suspicious, crime-fearin’ propaganda in their Personal, Social and Health Education classes at school. The old hippies initiated music festivals because they believed, perhaps a little self-indulgently, that young people were capable of setting up arenas for communion and self-exploration separate from the pieties and obsessions of everyday life. Now older, greyer and more money-minded, they think that the young are not trustworthy or sensible after all, and therefore must be prodded and goaded like cattle.

The rejection of the new, over-policed, anti-risk Glastonbury by young people is an act of principled rebellion on a par with Michael Eavis’s decision to set up a small, hippyish music festival in the first place in 1970. Today, he’s The Man.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated