Priti Patel’s Bigotry Should Shock No-One Considering Britain’s Anti-Traveller History

The Police Powers Bill Is Just the Latest Example of a Long British History of Anti-Traveller Racism

Michael East
Mar 17 · 9 min read
Gypsy caravan by Devil’s Bridge, Kirkby Lonsdale | Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Conservative government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that passed its second reading last night is one of the most draconian and authoritarian pieces of legislation to ever gain a hearing in the House of Commons. Rightfully seen as an attack on our freedom to peacefully protest, the bill will widen police powers to a level not seen outside of some of the world’s most repressive regimes. Police will have the power to shut down protests it deems too noisy, they will be able to impose start and finish times, and there will be new restrictions on protests around parliament itself. One issue that has flown under many radars, however, is the new laws targeting Gypsies, Roma, and other Traveling (GRT) communities.

The bill will introduce legislation officially stated as being designed to combat trespass on private land, making the act a criminal offence instead of a civil offence. The new law would see fines of up to £2500 being handed out as well as a potential jail sentence of up to three months and the confiscation of caravans. However, Home Secretary Priti Patel has made it expressly clear that the legislation is targeted directly at travelling communities, with a “Home Office source” telling The Telegraph that the Tories were gunning for “unauthorised encampments.”

Inciting Racial Hatred

The Police Powers Bills is largely seen as the brainchild of Home Secretary Priti Patel, whose relentless targeting of GRT communities has not gone unnoticed. In September of last year, Patel was accused of inciting racial hatred when she branded Travellers “criminal and violent” in a Zoom meeting with Jewish leaders. The Home Secretary added that she was determined to confront the “criminality that takes place, and that has happened through Traveller communities and unauthorised encampments”. However, this is nothing new for the Conservative Party, nor the British government, with the country having a long and shameful history of bigotry toward GRT communities and individuals.

The Far-Right Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Home Secretary Priti Patel | Foreign and Commonwealth Office

In 2002, Andrew MacKay, the then Conservative member of parliament for Bracknell, stated in the House that “[Gypsies and Travellers] are scum, and I use the word advisedly. People who do what these people have done do not deserve the same human rights as my decent constituents going about their ordinary lives.” MacKay was far from an obscure backbencher, being a former shadow Northern Ireland secretary. He confidently stated his prejudices without censure, showing how accepted in society hate against Gypsies and Travellers truly is.

Then a Junior Home Office minister, Labour’s Angela Eagle, gave a cursory nod to human rights by saying in response that “[Travellers] should be afforded the same rights and dignities as other members of our society.” However, that was where any hope for decency ended as she focused heavily on criminality, insisting that “The law should be enforced equally towards them.”

MacKay’s additional comments spoke of “invasions” and “Ordinary, innocent people, hard-working, normal, straight-forward people,” wanting to live “in peace.” These comments are not unusual amongst anti-Gypsy, anti-Roma, and anti-Traveller bigotry, with these groups having long been ostracised as something “other” than “normal,” ensuring that GRT communities become associated in the popular consciousness with criminality, uncleanliness and not being “proper” British citizens. This atmosphere of hatred is not fermented overnight; instead, it has become ingrained in British culture ever since Gypsies were first recorded in Britain in 1505.

A History of Shame

It would take just 25 years for the first law expelling Gypsies from England to come into force when in 1530, they were forbidden to enter the country by Henry VIII under the notorious “Egyptians Act,” so named for the claim that Gypsy communities were masquerading as Egyptians. The text of the document accuses Gypsies of being “crafty” and committing acts of deception through fortune-telling and other “heinous felonies and robberies.” Those already in England were given just sixteen days to leave the realm, banned from returning.

In 1554, Henry’s daughter Mary passed a new Egyptians Act as the original piece of legislation had not resulted in the expulsion of all Gypsies as desired. This new law allowed Gypsies to stay in the country so long as they gave up their nomadic lifestyles, or as the bill would put it, their “naughty, idle and ungodly life and company.” By the time of the so-called Elizabethan “golden age,” laws had been passed that condemned all Gypsies to death, betraying the fanatical truth behind a monarch many consider amongst the finest to ever sit on the throne. In York in 1596, magistrates forced Gypsy children to watch as their parents were hanged for no crime other than their lifestyle and origins.

Traditional Gypsy dancers | John M CC BY-SA 2.0

While the last execution for being a Gypsy in the UK took place in 1650, life would be little better for many, with communities now facing the prospect of transportation to the American colonies and then later Australia. It wouldn’t be until the 1780s that the anti-Gypsy laws began to be repealed as the newly developing capitalist class realised they could be exploited as cheap labour in the fields and as new entertainment in the developing cities. Subsequently, Gypsy communities soon became associated with travelling circus’ and carnivals. By 1816 serious efforts began to be made to eradicate anti-Gypsy sentiment in the UK when John Hoyland, a Quaker, published the book A Historical Survey on the Customs, Habits and Present State of the Gypsies, and several charitable endeavours followed. Yet, these efforts would be largely in vain, and the spread of the new press only added to the problem, with lurid tales of mystical evil Gypsies involved in thefts and child-snatching often appearing in Penny Dreadfuls.

The Irish potato famine brought new communities to England, with Irish Travellers facing the triple discrimination of anti-Irish feeling, anti-Catholicism and anti-Traveller bigotry. Both travelling and settled Irish communities were frequent targets of abuse through the press and politicians who sought to capitalise on public prejudice, portraying immigrants as violent, drunk and uneducated. These stereotypes still exist to this very day.

1889 was a vital year for travelling communities as, once again, the government attempted to stop their nomadic lifestyles. The Moveable Dwellings Bill was first tabled the year before, pushed by the social reformer and lobbyist George Smith. The bill called for the registration and regulation of those living in caravans or on canal boats, giving sweeping powers to enter caravans to check on living conditions. While his intent undoubtedly came from attempting to alleviate poverty and squalor, it was a serious breach of personal liberty. The bill met with fierce resistance from travelling communities. The “King of the Epping Forest Gypsies” himself, George “Lazzy” Smith, even attended the House of Commons personally to oppose the bill.

Realising that the legislation would destroy the travelling entertainment business, the leading showmen of the day united in solidarity, with over 500 contributing to a fund to combat the proposals. The campaigner Reverend Thomas Horne was a prominent voice and had himself been born in a travelling family. The group would eventually become The Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain, and in 1893 the bill was rejected by a select committee, showing the power of a united voice.

New Century, Same Prejudice

By the 20th century, Britain saw the first influx of European Roma. During the Second World War, travelling communities made a vital contribution to the war effort, even having special camps built on government orders for those serving in the armed forces or working the land on the home front. These camps were destroyed as soon as the war ended, and hopes that things might change in light of the Holocaust were in vain. The Nazis had exterminated up to 600,000 Roma, Sinti and other Gypsies in what is termed the Porraimos (“the devouring”).

In 1960 under Harold Macmillan, a new Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act was legislated that allowed for mass evictions and harassment of travelling communities across the country. The new law required the occupiers of land to gain a license from councils before it could be used as a caravan site, meaning that many sites popular or then occupied by communities were immediately made illegal. Equally, with significant prejudice still existing, obtaining a license was near impossible in many cases, effectively making travelling itself illegal.

Appleby Horse Fair 2007 Gypsy Caravans & Horses at Appleby Horse Fair, 2007 | slippy, CC BY-SA 2.0

Campaigning by Liberal MP Eric Lubbock, later Lord Avebury, ensured that councils would be required to assess and provide for the needs of GRT communities and 324 new sites for caravans were created. However, it was far from plain sailing. Many councils outright refused to abide by the Caravan Sites Act, and John Major’s Tory government repealed the act entirely in 1994 with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. The act was a disaster for travelling communities, with councils now only obliged to identify land for private purchase, leaving 5,000 families without any legal home. Lately, John Major has been heralded by some as a voice of sense on the political right, his government’s actions against travelling communities seemingly forgotten.

Perhaps this is simply because such bigotry is simply the norm, having long passed the infamous “dinner table test” of acceptability. Indeed, life for GRT communities has been no better under Labour governments, with the hostility of politicians and the press possibly even increasing under Tony Blair.

Just a small selection of headlines from the UK press

This hostility would turn to tragedy in 2003 when a racist attack on a 15-year-old Irish traveller would end in murder. John Delaney was with friends when they were racially abused by a second group before Delaney was beaten and kicked in the head in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire. One of the assailants was reported by eyewitnesses to have said the victim deserved the beating because “he was only a fucking Gypsy.” Despite this, at the youths’ trial, the judge decided the attack was not racially motivated, and both were found guilty of manslaughter after being cleared of murder. John Delaney’s father said after the verdict that there was “no justice here. They were kicking my son like football,” adding that he was certain, “it was a racist attack.” Cheshire Police agreed, with Detective Chief Inspector Jed Manley saying he believed “that the incident still falls within the definition we would use for a racially-motivated incident.”

While the killing of John Delaney may have been the most extreme example of the violence and discrimination faced by GRT communities in the UK, there have been thousands of other examples of racially motivated crimes and incidents in recent years. Such is the level of hatred directed at these communities that reports in 2008 showed that GRT communities suffered more racism than any other group in the UK. At the same time, a Mori poll revealed that a third of all Britons admitted that they held prejudices against Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. With Priti Patel continuing to denigrate these groups as connected with criminality, bringing in harsh new laws that will only ostracise communities further, Britain’s long and shameful history of bigotry looks set to continue well into the future.

I am a freelance long-form writer who writes on true crime, politics, history and more. I am entirely self-funded and if you liked this article, please consider a donation via Patreon as a token of appreciation or directly via PayPal. You can join my mailing list for the latest articles and also like my Facebook page. I’m also active on Twitter. I can be contacted for projects through my website MichaelEastWriter.com where you’ll also find lots more content.

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Michael East

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Freelance writer. Writing on true crime, mysteries, politics, history, and more. | https://linktr.ee/MichaelEast

Age of Awareness

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Michael East

Written by

Freelance writer. Writing on true crime, mysteries, politics, history, and more. | https://linktr.ee/MichaelEast

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

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