Being a project focused on the history of Romany Gypsies and Travellers, it’s not often that we dip our toes into political waters but following the recent Commons debate regarding Gypsies and Travellers that took place on the 9th October 2017, having one foot in the past and one in the present, I believe gives me the unique opportunity to touch on a few issues or points raised.
As a race, Romany Gypsies have been persecuted by the monarchy or Government in the United Kingdom for hundreds of years, starting arguably with the 1530 Egyptians Act and continuing with revisions & additions that have been biased against us ever since. A lot of people still don’t realize that at one point in time it was a crime punishable by death to even be a Gypsy in this country.
Since that time there have been some notable law changes made that greatly affected or were directly aimed at the Gypsy & Traveller Community;
These are only a select few of the many acts of law that had a huge damaging effect on our community. If you were no longer allowed to stop on or near the side of effectively any road and were not able to stop on common ground as had been allowed for centuries, you were therefore at the mercy of kind private landowners allowing Gypsies & Travellers to camp on their land or liable to be fined large sums of money … and this is what happened more often than not. A quick scan of old newspaper reports of Petty Sessions bears out this fact.
There was a mass migration of Romany Gypsies from the UK to the USA in the 1850’s – my own family included – and in one US newspaper (who had a great interest in these strange newcomers to their Country), one of my ancestors – Owen Stanley – states that the closing of Common Ground was the last straw to break the Camels back, because they could no longer legally stop or camp anywhere, without being fined, hence their migration.
Gypsies & Travellers have a long held association with criminality but I feel those in power must take some responsibility for playing a part in helping to create that stereotype. While it may not have been directly intended, when those who chose to rightfully continue their habitual traveling lifestyle in spite of the laws biased against them, were continuously fined for doing so, the money had to come from somewhere … if you didn’t have any, didn’t want to spend time in the dreadful workhouses and wanted to continue to feed your family, some obviously turned to stealing, be it food, money or otherwise, to keep themselves going. I’m not condoning this activity, but they must have felt like they had few choices.
To be frank, life was hard as it was and the Government was making it harder.
Turn the clock forward to the Commons debate that took place on the 9th of October 2017, and very little appears to have changed in the Governments attitudes towards us and certainly some do not appear to have learned from the lessons of the past.
For a debate that was meant to be looking at how to make positive changes to help our community and promote racial equality, much of the time was spent arguing how to more strictly enforce laws against us; and when I say “us”, I really do mean “us”; There seemed to be a lack of differentiation or understanding as to a “good” Gypsy or Traveller, and a “bad” Gypsy or Traveller. Every single MP that spoke was very mindful of not wishing to be labeled politically incorrect or outright racist, so made the point of firstly saying some words along the lines of :-
“I know not all Gypsies and Travellers are bad … but”
… and therein lies the kicker; a “but” followed 9 times out of 10 and the words that followed that felt like they applied to us all.
There was notable derision on the side of the Conservative benches; Sir Paul Beresford (Conservative MP for Mole Valley) expressed the need for Travellers approached on sites to “prove who there are” … although how he proposes to do that, I’m unclear. Perhaps some form of Gypsy & Traveller identification scheme or register of individuals? The Nazi’s did something similar, and we all know what happened there …
… Mr. Mark Francois, Conservative MP for Rayleigh and Wickford, stood out for me, as he seemingly failed to understand why a non-traveling Traveller is still considered a Traveller (he was not alone in his failure to understand) and it took Laura Pidcock (Labour MP for North West Durham) to point out it was a matter of ethnicity. Gypsies & Travellers and Communities were also often spoken about as separate entities and again it took Laura Pidcock to point out that many of us are a part of the community in which we live or reside temporarily.
If MP’s and a Conservative Government fail to understand the basics of what defines a Gypsy or Traveller and our ethnic rights, what hope is there moving forward under the current leadership?
Taking the positives from the evening, a number of Labour MP’s put forward very good points and made constructive contributions; The aforementioned Laura Pidcock was one of the shining lights of the debate, backed up with excellent insights from Dr Paul Williams (MP for Stockton South) on health matters, and Kate Green (MP for Stretford & Urmston) & Tony Lloyd (MP for Rochdale) on several other fronts.
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises (for me) was an SNP MP (for Glasgow East) in the form of David Linden making a lengthy and mostly positive contribution to the debate. He also made the recently shamed Douglas Ross (MP for Moray) squirm which didn’t fail to make me, or the Speaker of the House of Commons chuckle.
If one naughty child in a classroom gets told off, you don’t send the entire class to see the Principal …
While it started as debate with perhaps different intentions it descended into a case of the Government focusing on the few that spoil it for the many … with a distinct lack of differentiation. If one naughty child in a classroom gets told off, you don’t send the entire class to see the Principal, as it makes no logical sense. Many of the MP’s that stood up to have their say on Monday night would do well to apply that analogy to our community when lumping us all together under the same banner.
Moving forward from the debate, I personally feel there needs to be a working group of Government officials AND members from the Gypsy & Traveller community involved in planning steps going forward. It was quite clear a large number of MP’s don’t understand anything about the Traveling community, so therefore how can they hope to make any positive changes in their Governance without our input?
A few members were right in some of their comments on the night though; We do need to take a bit of responsibility for some of our own; We know there are a select few just out to cause trouble and we need to speak out against them … those with complete and utter disregard to public decency with their anti-social attitudes and aggressive behavior. We can’t just close ranks and make it a case of “them” (the wider population) against “us” (the Gypsy & Traveller community) because that hurts us as a whole and creates a larger divide.
If we want to change peoples opinions of us, each one of us needs to start doing our own little bit to help facilitate those changes, just as much as the Government needs to educate themselves a little better before making any sweeping changes.
Whether you agree or agree to disagree, all of the above are just this one lowly individuals personal opinions on the matter …
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