Howard Goes Back to the Night

New Statesman (1996), March 28, 2005 | Go to article overview

Howard Goes Back to the Night


Just in case anyone had forgotten that the Tories are the nasty party and that their leader, in Ann Widdecombe's memorable words, has something of the night about him, Michael Howard has given us a sharp reminder in the past week. Estimates of the gypsy and traveller population in the UK vary, but the numbers not in permanent housing are unlikely to exceed 150,000. By almost any standards, they are a disadvantaged minority, suffering high child-mortality rates and low life expectancy (on average, their lives are a decade shorter than other people's), and living mostly on caravan sites close to sewage works, rubbish dumps and noisy factories. Given Britain's housing shortages, you would have thought we would all be grateful for a minority that doesn't actually want to live in houses. You would have thought, too, that the Tories, supposedly the party of enterprise and individual self-reliance, would be particularly keen to embrace a group who are almost entirely self-employed and who provide an invaluable source of itinerant, seasonal labour.

But no. Occasionally, travellers annoy small minorities of the bourgeoisie by moving on to land in desirable areas, affecting--horror of horrors!--property prices. To crack this tiny nut, Mr Howard--or, more precisely, his Aussie bruiser, Lynton Crosby--takes a full-page ad in a national paper, claiming (falsely) that if you are a traveller, you can build "where you like". If necessary, the Tory leader says, he will scrap the Human Rights Act. He offers not a word about where exactly he would like these people to live. Perhaps he could ask his fellow Tory, John Redwood, to enlist the Vulcans in transporting them into outer space. It is hard to think of any other plausible solution except another Holocaust (at least a quarter of a million gypsies died in the first one).

As Mr Howard well knows, gypsies, travellers or nomads have been the most vulnerable minority, ever since agriculture and the concept of private property developed. In the 16th century, they were liable to be executed or, at best, conveyed to "parts beyond the seas". Caribbeans and Asians, aspiring to semi-detached houses, bank accounts and A-levels, can be accepted as "just like us under the skin". Gypsies, who are not obsessed by rising or falling house prices, are truly alien. But though some travellers are dark-skinned, and are thought to have come originally from India, they can be abused without necessarily attracting charges of racism. …

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