by Jonathan Lee

Content warning: hate speech, antigypsyism, inclusion of derogatory language.

After a Hope Not Hate survey revealed the not-so-shocking discovery that two thirds of Conservative Party Members are islamophobes, pressure has been mounting for the Tories to launch a party inquiry into Islamophobia. In a time when Jeremy Corbyn’s hummus eating habits spur fresh cries of antisemitism, it is encouraging to see that the ‘Nasty Party’ are not immune from scrutiny for the widespread racism amongst their members. Though the survey results were damning, the response from the media has been somewhat subdued. Can you imagine the backlash if a survey found that two thirds of Labour Party members believed antisemitic conspiracy theories? Or if 43% said they would prefer the UK was not led by a Jew (as Conservatives members indicated at the possibility of a Muslim Prime Minister)? The next Tory leader will inherit this scandal and may not be able to brush it off so easily.

Now that the lid has been blown off the rampant islamophobia within the Conservative Party, it’s high time other widely held racist beliefs in the party ranks were examined; not least, antigypsyism.

predictably, the majority of the most egregious antigypsy statements come from politicians in the Conservative Party

To be fair, antigypsyism seems to be widespread amongst many of the major parties, with plenty of Labour and Lib Dem MPs and councillors using their position to demonise Gypsies and Travellers. Nick Clegg even had a pop a few years back. But, predictably, the majority of the most egregious antigypsy statements come from politicians in the Conservative Party. From community councillors to cabinet members, it’s always been open season on Romani and Traveller people for the Tory party when they need a minority to scapegoat. Many of these public comments should be classed as hate speech, and no doubt would be, were they concerning a different ethnic group. For the sake of brevity, we’ll concentrate only on a selection from the last decade in which the Conservatives have been in power.

Back in the early days of the Con-Dem coalition government the focus on British-born Romani and Travellers (the long standing punching bags of the right wing) began to shift for Tory tabloids, local councillors, and MPs. The new targets were Roma arriving from newly joined EU member states in eastern Europe. Daily Mail headlines raged about “Benefits Boulevard: Gypsies’ gaudy mansions built in Romania… with YOUR money”. UKIP was still a fledgling force, and whipped up fear amongst the public about hordes of Eastern Gypsies arriving at our shores. When freedom of movement restrictions were lifted in 2014, reporters flocked to airports anticipating overbooked flights from Romania and Bulgaria (which never materialised). And the Conservative Party, never ones to shy away from the issues at hand, saw a spate of high profile incidents of hate speech against Roma.

In 2009 Robert Fraser, then a Conservative Councillor in Leicestershire, publicly claimed that Roma from Eastern Europe would “stick a knife in you as soon as they look at you”. He has since left the party and joined UKIP. In 2013 Phillippa Roe, the Tory leader of Westminster City Council, warned of Romani immigrants “defecating on people’s doorsteps”.

After the hype over Roma invaders from the east had died down, politicians returned to the monotony of local antigypsyism. In 2013, Tory MP Jack Dromey ‘jokingly’ tweeted using the word “pikey”, as if to remind the British Gypsies the Tories hadn’t forgotten about them. Not to be outdone, Tory Councillor for Maidenhead Alan Mellins said in 2014 that the solution to speed up evictions of Gypsies and Travellers was to “execute them.”

In 2016 Gary Streeter, a Tory MP for South West Devon, compared Travellers to Ghengis Khan’s invading Mongol horde and said they should not be protected under law as an ethnic minority. In 2017, Tory Councillor Nick Harrington from Warwick District Council made the headlines when he took to Twitter to rant “thanks Ireland. You can keep your f***ing gypsies!” The same year the new MP for Moray, Douglas Ross, was slammed by Amnesty International and Gypsy & Traveller organisations for saying his top priority was “tougher enforcement against Gypsies and Travellers.”

Their view is indicative of small-parish-Tories up and down the country: the real Gypsies are long gone, these modern so-called Travellers should not be encouraged.

In a 2017 blog arguing against the creation of a local Traveller site, the Sandwell Conservatives stated “most of the residents of Sandwell don’t want Travellers in the borough … Whether through ignorance or political correctness, they [Labour] seem to regard Travellers as ‘old Meg she was a gypsy who lived upon the moor’ types when it would be more accurate to identify ‘Mick the white van man who collects “scrap” where he can’ as a more typical modern Traveller.” Their view is indicative of small-parish-Tories up and down the country: the real Gypsies are long gone, these modern so-called Travellers should not be encouraged. If we become “unwelcoming” for Travellers “the difficulties will diminish,” concluded the Sandwell Conservatives.

The Tory leader of Walsall Council, Mike Bird, thinks along the same lines. He perpetuated the myth that Gypsies and Travellers are above the law during a 2018 radio interview, agreeing with a caller’s opinion that Travellers are “parasitic”. Mr. Bird said “the gentleman is absolutely 100% right” and said of Travellers: “they are a lawless society, they have no respect whatsoever for our community.” 

These two common biases are married together by a Conservative councillor in Ealing, Joanna Dabrowska. She claimed in 2018 that there was “one rule for Travellers, one rule for the rest of us” and also recommended residents “not to fuel the demand for Travellers to encamp in the borough by not paying them (even an advance) for any services such as waste clearance, roofing services, laying driveways.” She started a petition which called for a borough-wide injunction against Gypsies and Travellers.

Under the Conservatives, we’ve seen the arrival of more and more council-wide injunctions which blanket-ban Gypsy and Traveller families, driving them from an entire borough or area. “The problem is, if the next borough has the same injunction in place, they then have to move again,” said Marc Willers, a human rights barrister and board member at the European Roma Rights Centre. “There’s nowhere else for them to go. They’re being driven into the sea.”

Other policies proposed by the Conservatives include plans to give police new legislative powers to curb so-called ‘illegal’ Traveller sites, announced by Home Secretary Sajid Javid in February 2019, and MP Andrew Selous’ proposed bill to remove any obligation on local authorities to build more permanent sites, and make unauthorised encampments a criminal offence. Alongside these proposals comes both coded and not-so-coded prejudices. Paul Scully, a Sutton MP who supports the proposed criminalisation of unauthorised encampments, told his local residents in 2018 that “Travellers have little regard for locks”, advising people to “keep their distance and keep themselves safe.” Whilst MP Andrew Selous opts for a less upfront approach, deploring the “constant fear” his constituents live in because of the lawlessness of Travellers but simultaneously reassuring us he “would not claim for one moment that such crimes are committed by one section of the community alone – of course they are not.”

Cuts to programmes like the Traveller Education Service have had devastating consequences for the education outcomes of Romani and Traveller children. Image: Charisse Kenion

The depth of antigypsyism in the Conservative Party is difficult to convey in brief. Most of it happens at a local level, often where it is most damaging, and barely gets reported on; such is the depressing unremarkableness of the prejudice against Romani and Traveller people. The Tory wall of indifference to complaints about such comments is strong. It means that in 2019 a Surrey MP can get away with describing Travellers as a “disease”, even after a coalition of activists, organisations, and members of the public complain.

Whether it’s through ruinous policies aimed at ‘getting tough on Gypsies and Travellers’, austerity induced cuts to GRT specific social services, or blatant off-the-cuff hate speech, the Tory Party is institutionally racist towards Romani people and Travellers. It’s long past time there was an investigation into antigypsyism in the party. Maybe now that an inquiry into islamophobia seems to finally be going ahead, this will act as an instigator for the depth of all forms of racism in the party to be properly examined.

Featured image via Anotherbloodyidealist


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