Red card for Tory MP’s ‘vile rhetoric’ on travellers

RACISM AND DISCRIMINATION: an 'official site' by Shamus McPhee

by Colin Turbett • One of the unintended consequences of the Scottish Government’s welcome implementation of Road Equivalent Tariff for ferry fares (i.e. significant fare reductions) to Scottish islands and remote areas, has been the proliferation of camper vans.

These crop up everywhere: often in designated places but also often on just about any scenic stopping place available. Now whilst this might annoy some people, I doubt if anyone would choose to make a racial attack on the owners just because they are almost exclusively of white Caucasian origin.

In contrast Gypsy Travellers stopping over (sometimes the only noticeable difference in remote areas is that they might have a bag of whelks sitting beside their vehicle!) are likely to receive attention—reports to the police or local authority and certainly intolerance if in beauty-spot car parks.

Many local authorities employ enforcement officers who deal only with Gypsy Travellers passing through their areas. It really is one law for one section of the community—well-heeled camper van owners—and one for those whose culture, in the words of Scottish Gypsy Traveller activist Shamus McPhee, they have in some respects, stolen and appropriated.

In a quantum leap of vile rhetoric, the Tory MP for Moray, Douglas Ross, has chosen to attack Gypsy Travellers for just this very thing with his comment that enforcement against them would be his number one priority if he were Prime Minister for a day.

Gypsy Travellers, he argued, as a ‘protected ethnic minority’, are above the law and can therefore get away with things the rest of the community cannot including setting up camp wherever they like.

This will be news to Gypsy Travellers in Scotland who find that they definitely cannot stop over in many places—including some which were traditional sites for hundreds of years.

The Criminal Justice Act 1994 removed the obligation on local authorities to provide sites and gave the police powers to decide if a public order offence has been committed if Travellers stop on private land.

Most local authorities in Scotland continued to provide official sites (although the number has reduced), but not Moray where the ill-informed Ross has served as a councillor, MSP and now MP.

Those ‘official’ sites that do exist are notoriously on land considered unfit for normal residences. Ethnic minority status is no protection against enforcement of existing law as Ross has falsely claimed, only against harassment based on racial grounds, and official practices aimed at assimilation into the mainstream community.

The fact is that in 2017, Scottish Gypsy Travellers, as argued in many previous Voice articles, are the subjects of racism and discrimination at every level in society—a fact recognised by the ethnic minority status only won in 2008.

As an ethnic group they remain under-represented politically and subject to the poorest of outcomes on every measurement of well-being including education, health, income poverty, unemployment and life expectancy.

Traditional sources of income such as seasonal farm work and odd-jobbing, have been lost. Many Gypsy Travellers have given up this uneven struggle and moved into permanent homes where stresses of such change lead them to suffer from poorer mental and physical health than their neighbours.

The Scottish Parliament Committee who oversee progress with ethnic minorities noted with dismay that between 2001 when they received a damning report on the treatment of Gypsy Travellers, and 2013 when they reviewed progress, not a single one of their 31 recommendations had been fully implemented.

These are facts but as Ross knows, these should never get in the way of populist rhetoric. Not only did he refuse to properly apologise, but he used questions about his behaviour the following day on BBC Scotland, as a platform to repeat his bigotry.

Ross is of course playing to a gallery of support for such views—lessons no doubt learned from Trump and Farage who have made the whipping up of hatred the art that gave Hitler infamy in the 1930s.

Sadly this is a trait not confined to Tories and the far right—similar views about Gypsy Travellers have been common from Labour politicians in the recent past. The racism and bigotry of Ross and those like him should be called out and exposed.

Douglas Ross is an SFA referee: as ‘Off the Ball’ presenter Stuart Cosgrove suggested, it would be nice to see the Green Brigade unfurl a banner in support of Gypsy Travellers next time Ross is at Parkhead!

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