Why I... believe Jack Straw's comments about Gypsies are 'stereotypical tripe'

August 27, 1999

Colin Clark

Lecturer in social policy, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and member of the British Gypsy Council.

Moving On: The Gypsies and Travellers of Britain by Colin Clark and Donald Kendrick is published in October by the University of Hertfordshire Press.

Jack Straw has really shot himself in the foot this time. I am astonished that someone with his intelligence and apparently non-racist tendencies would bundle all travellers together and brand them as vagabonds and thieves.

I think that Charles Smith, chairman of the British Gypsy Council, let Mr Straw off lightly when he dismissed his comments as "stereotypical tripe". It is ironic that the same home secretary who set up the Macpherson inquiry should be responsible for remarks that are no less than an incitement to racial hatred.

With the new millennium dawning, it would be nice to think that we will have more respect and tolerance for other cultures and ethnic communities in their struggle against racism. But it is still acceptable to hate and vilify Gypsies, although technically they should be protected under the Race Relations Act.

Gypsies are often described on eviction notices served to them as "persons unknown", which, in a literal sense, they are because they are a very closed and insular society. Often the first impression of many people is that if travellers park at the end of their road, house prices will fall. But for self-protective reasons. Their history is marked by two major genocidal episodes and this country's draconian legislation means that they are discriminated against in all areas. Obtaining health care is a major problem if you do not have a fixed abode, and some schools still refuse to enrol Gypsy children.

There are about 120,000 travelling people in the UK if you take all the different types together, and they all have a vote. They may be a small minority but they are politically active. The Gypsy Council has already submitted a formal complaint to the Commission for Racial Equality following Jack Straw's remarks. The CRE used to be reluctant to get involved with discrimination against travellers but this is starting to change.

Many children are warned that if they do anything bad they will be taken away by the Gypsies. Yet I still do not understand why we demonise Gypsies as abusers, child-stealers or cannibals. Is it because they do not hold down nine-to-five jobs and do not have huge mortgages? Do we perhaps envy their nomadic freedom?

Local authorities may get around providing facilities for Gypsies by calling them travellers, but Jack Straw should not be allowed to get away with his remarks.

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