Percy, one of our new trustees, writes in response to the recent diatribe in the Times...
Today (15th May 2021) there was a call for ethnic cleansing in The Times, the paper of record, by Matthew Parris, a fairly respected commentator. I first saw it being retweeted by a former Conservative MP, Anna Soubry, considered to be a moderate, centrist voice, with an addition of her own article from a few years ago saying basically the same thing. Racism against Travellers is always in fashion, like denim jeans, but somehow lately it’s hit the catwalk again and suddenly everyone is wearing it no matter how ridiculous it makes them look.
The article starts as follows, before you get to the paywall:
IT’S TIME TO STOP PANDERING TO TRAVELLERS
Indulging those who claim to be nomads by giving them designated sites and ethnic minority status has gone too far
Last month (it was reported) “the High Court . . . ruled that local authorities can no longer issue blanket bans on Gypsies and Travellers stopping on parcels of land”. The reporter called this “a landmark case which campaigners have hailed as a ‘victory for equality’”. The story appeared in The Guardian, illustrated by a sweet photograph of a gaily painted traditional horse-drawn gypsy wagon with big wooden wheels.
Most of Britain would see things differently.
Straight away, he’s singing from the populist hymnbook. This minority wants rights? And to be allowed to go about their lives without being exactly like everyone else? Clearly, this is sinister and wrong.
“A sweet photograph of a gaily-painted traditional horse-drawn gypsy wagon with big wooden wheels” is of course, here to contrast with his own impression of Travellers in the next paragraph -”A scattering of portaloos and wheelie bins, dogs on chains, steel barricades and more caravans” - This is his central thesis, that he is a worldly cynic who sees through our insistence that we’re a collection of small ethnic groups broadly united by traditional peripatetic or nomadic lifestyles, and sees the truth, that we’re antisocial vagabonds who thumb our nose at good god-fearing settled folk. He then immediately contends that “These Travellers have done neither me nor anyone or anyone I know any harm… But public anger is undeniable”.
At this point, as I will probably have to point out many times - Matthew Parris is a gay man, older than me, so old enough to remember when public opinion was largely that gay men were an eyesore, a moral hazard, something that should be stamped out at all costs, or at least retrained into having god-fearing straight lives with god-fearing straight wives. When a legal victory for gay men to have the age of consent equalised, or the overturning of Section 28, was seen as a victory for equality by us as LGBT people, but as Matty so eloquently puts it; “Most of Britain would see things differently”.
Whether or not the majority finds something appealing or not is not a good metric by which to judge if it’s moral.
He proudly says that he has been prompted to do some “Hard thinking” about “A national problem that troubles many of us” - Us, of course, being settled readers of The Times, because Travellers reading the Times is unthinkable to him, and “the problem” of course being Travellers. But then, admits that he can’t understand the House of Commons library’s (fairly simple) report on Travellers, published in 2019. I’ve read the report - it’s here - https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8083/ - and it’s quite well-written in plain English and lays out basically anything that someone trying to make policy or even just have a really hard think about us would need to know: That only about a quarter of Travellers live in a caravan for any substantial part of the year, that there’s groups of Travellers considered to be both “Ethnic” (Gypsies, Roma and Minceiri) and “Cultural” (Showpeople, Boaters and other people who travel following their work but who aren’t currently considered to be a distinct ethnicity by the UK government), and then a load of statistics about our health and education outcomes. None of this is particularly byzantine.
For Matty though, this is “An Alice-In-Wonderland rabbithole in which things that had seemed simple tangle into a mind-bending complexity, from which you surface, gasping that it’s all just too complicated. You give up. Even the vocabulary stumps us.”
This flashed up a parallel in my mind immediately, to how trans people are also treated in the media- In the mind of the reactionary, we’re a new group, who are being pandered to, whose needs are too complicated, too wrapped up in language and fine distinctions that no right-thinking adult should ever have to learn, we’re sensitive, we’re too protected by that dirty “Equality Law”, and it’s sick that we should be able to just live our weird lives in places where normal folk might see us, because even if we aren’t actually causing anyone any harm, we look unsightly.
In both cases, the writer relies on one thing - That Travellers (and trans people) are a tiny minority, whom the majority of people in Britain won’t have had any particularly close relationships with, and whose lives and priorities can be made to seem alien and frightening, maybe even subversive, to the average person. If you don’t understand why a family of Travellers have pulled in onto your school field - And that they likely only did so because they were pushed there from somewhere more private - If you don’t understand why trans people are campaigning for access to single-sex spaces - Because they have nowhere else to go - It’s easy to be whipped up into believing that they are doing it to spite and terrify you, and possibly to harm your children.
He sneers, with scare quotes around “Identity” that many of us live in houses but still consider travelling to be part of our identity. That’s true - Something like 75% of us do live in bricks and mortar (He must have got that far in the House of Commons document, right?) and most of us still have at least a romantic attachment to the idea of travelling, and who could begrudge us that? In settled people, it’s called being attached to your roots and proud of your culture - Think of every fifty-year-old today who seems to think that he personally flew a Spitfire in the Battle Of Britain. In us, apparently, it’s some kind of pathology.
Next, he pulls off a feat of sleight-of-hand that would make the most stereotypical Gypsy pickpocket in a Victor Hugo novel blush: He invokes “My nephew is a Bargee” - This is central to his argument that we are being “Indulged… with ethnic minority status”: Somehow, although his article repeatedly states that Travellers who physically do not travel are more common nowadays than ones who do, he still manages to bring back this strange idea that anyone who lives in a caravan or on a boat is a Traveller, and that all real Travellers live in vehicles. Someone who wasn’t paying close attention could imagine that this was how all Travellers are - they’re the one youthful black sheep of their family, who has chosen to go and live on a narrowboat for a while to have a jolly gap year - and thus that trying to forcibly settle us because “Life here involves having an address, being contactable, keeping children in school, paying tax on your property, accepting responsibility for a defined patch of real estate as proprietor or tenant” is just the state stepping in to be a good middle-class parent to us ever-childlike nomads.
Even though, as plenty of councils and plenty of Traveller families ourselves have demonstrated, it’s possible to do all of those things without having to destroy our way of life. Travelling teachers exist, hospitals and GPs’ surgeries can treat people with no fixed address, and just putting that libel to bed forever: All of us pay taxes, the same as anyone else, if we live on any kind of authorised site, including transit sites and people living on narrowboats, whether they’re paying for a constant cruising license or a mooring fee. Less than 3000 families in liveaboard vehicles in England live solely in unauthorised camps on land that they don’t own. And considering that those families generally also have a very low income, if you’re interested in going after people who aren’t paying tax, you’d get your money back faster by campaigning against tax avoidance schemes for the rich.
This is also the paragraph where he asserts that, because we don’t have a financial stake in the land, and because in his imagination we have no tie to the local area (even though for many of us, our families will have travelled the same places for generations, often having a much longer claim to an area than a settled family would), that we are bad stewards of it. For people playing Nazi Bingo here, that’s “blood and soil”- And for the rest of us, how would you dispose of all of your household waste, if despite your offering to pay extra, the bin-men wouldn’t come to your house and you were locked out of the local tip?
He also throws in a little casual racism towards the Tuareg, so, solidarity to my comrades in Libya, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Algieria.
Next is the part of his article that he himself describes as “Brutal”, where he actively calls for the annihilation of Traveller cultures. A little flash of self-awareness, but not enough to make him just scroll back up to the top of the page and delete every word of this ridiculous screed.He wants to “Phase out the ‘ethnic minority’ rights of people who are not a race, but a doomed mindset” - even though just a couple of paragraphs ago he was scoffing at us for mostly no longer living in caravans, yet still calling ourselves Traveller. He wants a “Relentless squeeze” on unauthorised encampments, and to put Travellers into social housing - But I note that he hasn’t asked for a commensurate increase in the already-overstretched provision of social housing, which is already overstretched and oversubscribed in every local authority area. He wants to tell us “Honestly that (our) way of life offers (us) and our children no future” - Which is, to return to Nazi Bingo, pretty much exactly the Nazi argument for rounding up Roma families into Zigeunerlager.
“There is a place for them, but no longer for their way of living”. Is his conclusion.
Let’s just look at the International Criminal Court’s Rome Convention’s ruling on what constitutes a genocide:
In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
Killing members of the group;
Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
I’ve bolded line 3, which is what this is - Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its destruction in whole or in part.
Preventing Travellers from living together, from practising basic tenets of our cultures, deliberately removing our status as ethnic minorities - which will make it harder to fight against discrimination or to coordinate things like education about Traveller history or culture in schools, insisting that “Being a Traveller” is just a matter of antisocial behaviour rather than our own long history and culture - That’s all things calculated to make it harder for Travellers to maintain our cultures and to live as a people, whether nomadically or not. His stated goal is that Travellers should end up indistinguishable from and spread out within the British population, instead of being an ethnic minority with equal protection to any other.
That’s just a genocide, and I’d respect him much more if he was honest about what he wants, instead of trying to wrap it up in concern.