“Travellers should travel” – the forked tongue behind the gag

By Damian Le Bas

LAST week, Sajid Javid MP was appointed Britain’s new Minister for Equalities.  We have yet to see what how he will perform in his post, and we should all wish him well: even those who have been made cynical by the British coalition government’s repeated attacks on Travellers. Three years ago, we should also observe, Mr Javid publicly asked a minister if “we should help Travellers to preserve their way of life – their travelling way of life – by moving them on”.

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Sajid Javid, Wikimedia Commons

Mr Javid- who is also the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport- is not the first person to make this joke, or a variant of it. There’s a forked tongue behind this gag: saying “if they’re Travellers they should travel” has become a popular catchphrase of the Right for two reasons. Firstly, it is a linguistic trick that traps Travellers in a Catch-22 by implying they are never allowed to stop moving (are they supposed to sleep at the wheel?) and that moving them immediately, and by force, is therefore always legitimate. Secondly, saying “Travellers should travel” actually marks a well-worn attempt to reduce complex, living cultures to a simple question of etymology. It’s based on the idea that being an ethnic Traveller is defined by nothing other than travelling; that all the linguistic and cultural history of Europe’s nomadic peoples can be summarised- and jeered at- through the disingenuous assumption that moving around is the only thing that makes us who we are.

The truth is more complicated than this, but only slightly. It’s certainly not too complicated for politicians who studied at top universities to understand, and explain. Down the centuries, across Europe, many peoples have been known in various languages as “Travellers” because of their nomadic history, which for some persists to the present day. Of course, many who share in this history- including millions of settled Roma people- have not been nomads for hundreds of years. Yet the way of life persists, and so in many places does the name. It is not just Romani people, but Yeniche people, Irish Travellers, the Mercheros of Spain, and others who have historically been called Travellers, and often referred to themselves as Travellers, too.

While it’s understandable that people associate these groups with human movement, it is not excusable for politicians to pretend that movement is the only thing that defines them culturally. Anyone who has had even the slightest acquaintance with historically nomadic peoples cannot seriously believe that motion is the only cultural facet they possess. Language, customs, rituals, family bonds- even the sense of togetherness itself- these are as important in creating the sense of community for minorities as they are for majority cultures.

Zoni Weisz, a Dutch Sinto, Holocaust survivor, and recipient of the Order of Orange-Nassau, has asked what keeps a culture together; what enables it to stand the test of time? Mr Weisz speaks of “the major binding factors” that give us our sense of belonging. Firstly, there is family; secondly, for his people, there is the Romani language, in all its forms. Each of us will have a different view on which things are most important in giving to us our sense of belonging, but I mention Mr Weisz’s view to show how absurd it is to try to reduce Romani ethnicity to a question of movement. Whether you are discussing Romani people or anyone else, to pretend that ethnic groups who have historically been known as “Travellers” have only one such “binding force”- the act of travelling- makes as much sense as saying that Italians are defined by being in Italy, and that as soon as they step out of the country, they cease to be Italian.

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Zoni Weisz, © Damian Le Bas

Returning to Britain, and to the issue of moving people on by force, we can observe that subtler responses to the serious issue of eviction have tended to be rarer than populist jokes and scaremongering. Last week was the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of The Travelling People, a revolutionary programme by Charles Parker and the folk musicians Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. It looked at the plight of Travellers, many of them Romani people, and many of whom at that time lived in dire poverty in 1960s Britain.

Back then, nobody made jokes about Travellers who didn’t travel- they were too busy complaining about the fact that they did travel, and refused to give up a way of life which had “no place in a modern, industrialised nation”. “They’re like the starlings here in Birmingham,” said alderman Harry Watton. “They’re here, and they’re making a mess.”

Speaking less than 20 years after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, Watton- a member of the Labour party- also suggested Britain should “exterminate the impossibles”, meaning those Travellers who couldn’t be “helped” out of their retrograde nomads’ habits. In the decades since, it’s been Britain’s Conservative-led governments who have done all they can to legislate this way of life out of existence- most notably in the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which gave police draconian powers to move people on who were neither causing a nuisance nor trespassing on someone else’s land. At the same time, Travellers who have taken the alternative route of settling down permanently while retaining their movable homes face highly organised campaigns aimed at scuppering their efforts. Now the DCLG- the UK Government department in charge of planning and accommodation- is thickening the soup by tabling new laws specifically intended to stop ethnic Travellers from buying land and settling down at all.

Europe has never quite made its mind up which it dislikes more- ethnic Travellers who do move around, and therefore cannot be trusted; or those who stop moving and become a permanent fixture in one place, and who are then mocked for thinking they still have a culture at all. Many people are, thankfully, not seduced by this binary attitude. Yet many populist politicians find it still plays well with a disillusioned electorate. Some of those same politicians must know that “Travellers” are people who got this name because of one strand in their people’s history, and that history’s other strands cannot be washed away, simply because we don’t move all the time. Politics likes its jokes, especially when it thinks the target group is unlikely to swing an election. But why should we settle for jokes that aren’t even funny, when the truth is hardly more challenging for us to grasp?

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