Britain: land of exaggeration and self-pity

When a Member of Parliament refers to plans to provide a tiny number of places for Travellers’ caravans as “the ghettoisation of the countryside”, you have to wonder what lies behind such sensationalist language. Damian Le Bas takes a look at the facts and fictions behind portrayals of Travellers in the UK

It takes a lot to surprise a Gypsy in the UK: over the past 500 years, history and politics have devised almost every thinkable means to weaken our grip on our heritage. The country may well deserve its reputation as one of the most tolerant in the world, but there are some things it never has tolerated and seemingly never will. Among them is the traditional Romani way of life.

This way of life- much romanticised but still little understood- was a mosaic of different elements, among them the English Romani language, which I have discussed in detail elsewhere on this blog. Our language, though, gets little attention, especially in the news media. In this country, when ‘Travellers’ pop up in the papers, it usually means one thing and one thing only: ‘Britain, be afraid: the caravans are heading for you’.

That the press and the general populace share a dread fascination with Travellers is a mainstay of British culture: what is fascinating-and worrying- is the size of the gulf that separates this fear and the reportage that perpetuates it, and the size of the minority in question. The statistics must be seen to be believed.

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The caravan is an ambiguous symbol in the UK: it depends who you think it inside. Photo: © Damian Le Bas

If we combine statistics from across the UK[1], the first thing that should strike us is how few ethnic Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers now live in caravans. Of an estimated population of over 300,000 people, one sixth are believed to live in caravans: 14,208 families, or around 50,000 people, equivalent to the population of a very small town.

So nomadic Travellers are already a minority within a minority, and they’re also spread all over the UK. We’re talking about a very small number of people, scattered across the four constituent countries of the United Kingdom.

Within this already small figure, we have another minority: those who live by the side of the road, or on other land without legal permission. You would not believe- based on the hysteria whipped up in the national and local press- that 80% of the UK’s caravan-dwelling Travellers live in perfectly legal accommodation, and pay tax to do so (a tax paid to the local authorities, which is called the “community charge” or “council tax”).

At least once a week I am invited onto radio shows to debate “Gypsy and Traveller” issues, and the most frequent statement I hear is that “Gypsies don’t pay tax”. While in the case of income tax, there is actually no reputable evidence to support this statement[2], if we take council tax as an example, the maximum number of Gypsies and Travellers not paying council tax would be- based on government statistics- around 3,580 families. That’s less than 5% of the Romani Gypsy and Irish Traveller population. Let me state that number once again again: less than 5%.

Gypsy-families-at-Appleby-007

Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Is it surprising, then, that this stereotype persists in spite of the complete and utter lack of evidence to support it?

No. At least, not if you think that the basic needs of human societies are more influential than trifling matters like proof and statistics. I think it’s clear that the reason anti-Gypsy stereotypes are so popular is not because of their basis in evidence, but because of the cultural purpose that these stereotypes serve within non-Gypsy society.

A ‘question’ like “Why can’t Gypsies pay their tax like the rest of us?” is not really a question at all, but a statement of belief; a statement of a quasi-religious character. The ‘questioner’ is really saying “Gypsies = bad. So the rest of us = good; or at least, not as bad as the Gypsies.”

There is a technical term for this person or group who are placed in a sacrificial role in order to create a sense of relief and solidarity within a larger group: the term is scapegoat. In the ancient Near East, this role was played, literally, by a goat, but the British are quite fond of goats, so they would rather heap their collective sins on the heads of the Gypsies instead.

So the blaming of the scapegoat continues, in a tradition far older in Britain than eating turkey at Christmas. Yet occasionally a journalist or MP says something which is so ridiculous it surprises even the Gypsies.

Take the recent comment by Phillip Hollobone, a Conservative Member of Parliament, who became the latest politician in the 483 year history of the post-Egyptians Act[3] bandwagon to jump on and start bashing Travellers.

This is what Hollobone said, speaking to fellow MPs:  “How can the ghettoisation of our countryside have been allowed to take place under national planning regulations? Why should one category of person be treated differently under the planning regulations than any other? There has to be a balance in this system and the reason that that situation was allowed to develop is because Gypsies and Travellers are effectively given special provision and my belief is that everyone should be treated the same.”

The crucial word in this ridiculous rant is “effectively”, because if you say that Gypsies and Travellers are “effectively given special provision” you can avoid addressing the actual facts, which are that Gypsies and Travellers get no special provision at all.

Firstly, Gypsies and Travellers are up to 20 times more likely to be refused planning permission on their home than everyone else[4].

Secondly, sites for Gypsies and Travellers typically cost less to build than normal homes for people who don’t want to live in caravans (and the residents usually provide the actual home- the caravan or mobile home- themselves).

Thirdly, the number of these sites that are being built- and moreover, the number of these sites that even exist- is pathetically small when compared to the numbers of new homes being built for people who do not want to live in caravans.

Caravans line an access road to Dale Farm travellers site, near Basildon, England

Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Between 1968 and 2011, the number of pitches (plots with enough space for one family) built by local authorities in England was 4999[5]. That’s less than 5,000 homes, in 43 years. By comparison, in the month of March 2011, the number of new homes registered in the UK was 30,012.

That’s six times as many homes for non-Travellers in a single month as Travellers were given in over 40 years. Does that qualify as “special treatment” for Gypsies? Perhaps it does, if you come from a special anti-universe where mathematics has been inverted so that “less” means “more”.

What makes a serving politician think it’s reasonable to refer to the possible- not even certain- building of sites for 37 Traveller homes as “the ghettoisation of the countryside”, when news of 100 new homes for non-Travellers was greeted in 2011 as “welcome news for local people looking to find a home[6]”? Why does it continue to cause such anger and resentment that some people’s cultural tradition involves living in homes which are not fixed to the ground?

This part of the discussion may well remain mysterious, especially given the British adoration of the traditional Romani wagon, and subsequent love affair with joining caravanning clubs so one can live like a Gypsy for a couple of weeks of the year. And the only thing that surprises this Gypsy is the hypocrisy of all that.

Written by Damian Le Bas


[1] Statistics from across the UK accurate up to 2006. Sources: Department for Communities and Local Government (England, 2006); Welsh Assembly (Wales); Scottish Executive Central Research Unit (Scotland); Northern Ireland Housing Executive (Northern Ireland).

[2] Take, for example, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the body which collects tax on income. I wrote to them to ask whether, to their knowledge, Travellers pay less tax. They said they have no idea, because ethnic data are not collated in relation to tax data. The only personal data they hold are age, gender, country, region, county, borough/district/authority and constituency.

[3] an Act passed by the English Parliament under King Henry VIII to expel the “outlandish people calling themselves Egyptians”, which referred to Romani people and those who consorted with them.

[4] Source: Travellers’ Times planning guide, published by Rural Media Company (Hereford, UK), Autumn 2012

[5] Source: Guardian Datablog. Retrieved by author on 12th July 2013

[6] Homes & Communities Agency Website, retrieved by author on July 12th 2013