Britain’s Cultural Cleansing

Our treatment of gypsies and travellers reveals Little England at its worst: mean-spirited, vindictive and narrow-minded.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 15th May 1995.

Only a society without confidence needs to suppress those who do not conform to its conventions. A robust culture, on the other hand, welcomes diversity. The rapidly accelarating persecution of Gypsies and New Age Travellers suggests that, as a nation, we are losing faith in ourselves.

Travellers in Britain are a mixed bunch, comprising those who were born on the road, who may or may not be of Romany descent, those who have taken to it recently – seeking homes, work or a change from city life – and those who travel seasonally. They number, according to whose estimate you accept, anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000. But they are united by one inescapable fact: their mode of existence sets them apart from other people. It is, I believe, this cultural difference, rather than any disruption they cause, which underlies the scarcely clothed efforts of government, landowners and local authorities to eliminate their way of life.

This summer travellers of all descriptions will be confronted with a battery of new laws. The Criminal Justice Act enables police officers to direct people to leave land if they are held to have damaged property (damage can include urinating in a hedge or leaving footprints on the grass), if any of them have – in an officer’s estimation – been threatening, abusive or insulting , or if together they possess six or more vehicles. Vehicles – ie travellers’ homes – not removed during what the officer considers a reasonable period (practice suggests that this can be as little as two minutes) can be taken to the scrapyard and crushed, their former occupants having to foot the bill for their destruction.

The Act also relieves local authorities of their duties to provide sites for travellers. What this piece of housing legislation is doing in a criminal justice act has not been satisfactorily explained, but it means that government funded provision of travellers’ sites has been terminated just as the police have been empowered to prevent travellers from stopping anywhere else. The Act aims, in other words, to end migratory life in Britain.

The new provisions were necessary, the government maintained, because travellers, in particular New Age Travellers, have become a scourge upon society. They damage landscape features, leave litter, steal from the residents, harbour drugs dealers and sponge off the state.

Amongst travellers there are, of course, people who commit all these crimes and misdemeanours, but no scientific study comparing crime rates among travellers with rates among settled people has ever been commissioned. Instead, the government’s analysis relies upon reports in newspapers, some of which are true, some selective or exaggerated and some wholly inaccurate. Instances of individual behaviour have been generalized in order to suggest that the entire class has criminal or antisocial tendencies. This is the time-honoured means by which discrimination against any group – ethnic or cultural – has been justified.

Nor is the criticism of travellers without a certain measure of hypocrisy. The Country Landowners’ Association, which first proposed the new anti-traveller measures, claims that travellers have to be contained because they damage hedges and archaeological remains. Yet the disappearance of these features from vast areas of the countryside has nothing to do with travellers and a great deal to do with landowners. The same lobby’s charge that travellers are a waste of taxpayers’ money may seem a little strange when their own state handouts can run to Dresden china and Daimlers in the drive.

Many of the travellers I have met have chosen their lifestyle because they wish to minimise their impact on the earth. Among them are people with a deep understanding of and respect for the countryside, some of whom have never drawn a giro, but survive as blacksmiths, foresters, mechanics, hedgelayers, wagon makers, clothes designers and musicians. Yet the new laws make no distinctions between travellers. All are to be punished for the crimes of a few.

Some MPs have sought to distinguish – in speeches if not in law – between Romanies and New Age Travellers. The use of ethnic identity to distinguish “good” travellers from “bad”, or long-established travellers from more recent ones, is not only misleading but also at variance with other racial polices in Britain.

In an insecure nation, policies discriminating against a weak minority will always find favour with the majority. The government has hit a soft target. The new laws, uncontested in the Commons, are among the ugliest expressions of populist politics this country has seen. While attending to none of the underlying problems, they are likely to make the lives of some of the most abused and vulnerable people in society still more perilous.

Last year, as implementation of the Act approached, extrajudicial actions against travellers by both police and vigilantes – in some cases acting in concert – increased. Travellers – linked by inclusion in the Act with terrorists and child pornographers – became a legitimate target, whose very existence was equated with criminality. In separate incidents, their homes were petrol bombed, blasted with shotguns, hauled away or smashed up beyond recognition. Tethered dogs were maimed and blinded by farmers and possessions were “permanently confiscated” by police officers. There are allegations against the police of both sexual abuse and unreceipted instant “fines”.

As one investigates the story of travellers in Britain, it soon becomes clear that, as a class, they are more sinned against than sinning. Conflicts with landowners have escalated because local authorities have failed to discharge their legal duty to provide sites, at the same time as traditional travellers’ sites have been disappearing. Research in four counties by the architect Tony Thomson suggests that, since 1986, between 60 and 90% of traditional sites have been lost: perhaps the fastest enclosure of any resource in British history. Even derelict land, which no one has any intention of using, has been cleared of its travellers and sealed off. This is Little England at its worst, mean-spirited, vindictive and narrow-minded.

The new provisions can fairly be summarised as punishing those non-conformists who (in one of the most enclosed nations on earth) have nowhere to live. Who, in the nation which now has the lowest percentage of people employed in agriculture, have lost the seasonal labour which was, for many, the traditional means of subsistence.

In the consultation paper that led to the lifting of local authorities’ unmet duty to provide sites, Sir George Young recommended that travellers should buy their own land and settle on that. Yet, for most, land purchase is far out of reach. For those who can afford it, planning permission for sites is turned down in over 90 per cent of cases. Whether the Act succeeds in wiping out travellers or not, it will add hugely to the costs of both policing and housing. In 1993/4, Avon police and county council spent an estimated £1 million simply in moving travellers on, without providing any solution – in the form of either sites or bricks and mortar – to their homelessness. Site provision is cheaper than either persecution or assisted housing.

A nation depends on its diversity. Without alternative cultures, beliefs and moral codes it stagnates. Without diverse approaches to its diverse problems it disintegrates. If travelling comes to an end in Britain, all of us will be the poorer for it.