Who’s afraid of Basildon Man?

The Dale Farm clash allowed the commentariat to resuscitate their long-standing loathing for Essex men and women.

The eviction of Travellers from Dale Farm in Essex, England, has been a powerful reminder of the blinkered attitudes that persist among commentators, campaigners and politicians. To be blunt, as far as they are concerned, the white working-class neighbours of Dale Farm are a bunch of uncouth, racist trolls.

Many instantly bought into the idea that the Dale Farm eviction was no less than an ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Travellers executed by the ‘racist’ Basildon Council that was hellbent, as the local Labour MEP put it, on ‘whipping up prejudice’. This view of the locals as easily incited barbarians is not new, though. ‘Basildon Man’ was a 1980s caricature intended to epitomise the lure of Thatcherite ideals over the old working class. Apparently, it was terribly materialistic to aspire to things like owning your own home or buying a few shares in British Telecom. The Basildon Man caricature was driven by a snobbish dislike of the working-class nouveaux riche, and bolstered by a broader Essex Man/Essex Girl stereotype: they may have acquired money, we were told, but they’ll always be laughably tasteless and vulgar.

Today, the ‘acceptable prejudice’ toward the white working class is more likely to invoke the spectre of an impoverished, feral underclass than vulgar decadence. But whatever the stereotype, the inference of a virus-like racism infecting the lower orders is never far away.

It was in the aftermath of the 1993 murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in Eltham in south-east London that a sinister caricature of the white working class emerged, based on the fact that members of a local gang of white teenagers were regarded as the chief suspects. In his report of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in 1999, Lord Macpherson echoed a liberal, middle-class suspicion that Britain’s entire white, working-class teenage population is permanently on the cusp of racist violence. His assessment gave rise to a wider anxiety over the ‘disease’ engulfing society.

The day after the Macpherson Report was published in 1999, the Daily Mirror frontpage headline read ‘Into Hell’. The story described reporter Brian Reade’s journey into the ‘white’ housing estate in Eltham where the Stephen Lawrence murder suspects grew up. Reade apparently discovered ‘racism seeping from every pore’ of this ‘E-reg Escort land’ where race hate is ‘a way of life passed down from father to son’.

The Macpherson mindset lives on. The belief that racism infects children and, if left untreated, will incubate into potentially monstrous outcomes permeates official anti-racism policy. Children, says racial equality advocate Jane Lane, are likely ‘from the day they are born’ to be ‘learning the beginnings of racial and often racially prejudiced attitudes’. ‘Catching them young’, says Institute of Race Relations commentator Jenny Bourne, ‘is a way of ensuring that subliminal notions do not become fully fledged prejudices and go on to lead to racist behaviour’.

Back in 2006, while working as a jobbing community videomaker, I found myself sent out to Essex as part of an educational initiative designed, precisely, to ‘catch ‘em while they’re young’. Commissioned by Essex County Council, our task was to create an anti-racist educational pack for use throughout the county’s primary schools. My colleagues, from Greenwich and Lewisham Young People’s Theatre, were familiar with the schools of south-east London (including Eltham). But as they prepared for this assignment (dubbed ‘Watch Out for Racism’), they appeared to view themselves as anti-racist missionaries heading out into the real ‘white racist’ heartlands of Essex. We were sent to schools in and around Basildon.

What happened next became the springboard for my report The Myth of Racist Kids. Suffice to say, all we discovered out there in deepest Essex were excellent primary schools with thriving populations of children. Black and other minority ethnic (including Traveller) children played and integrated with the white majority with impressive ease. Six months on, my colleagues agreed that the racist backwater they’d expected to find was probably somewhere else.

So what evidence is there of local racial prejudice directed at the Travellers of Dale Farm? Well, none really. There was the news report of a man arrested for racially abusing Dale Farm residents. But he turned out to be a pensioner who’d travelled down from Newcastle for the specific purpose of yelling abuse over the fence. And then there was the police-intercepted hate mail addressed to residents of Dale Farm which had racist words scrawled on the envelope.

Of course, if we were looking for locals unhappy about the Dale Farm site (or other sites in the area), we would find plenty of them. Resentment smoulders over the flouting of planning law, fly-tipping and other anti-social behaviour. But, as James Heartfield recently pointed out on spiked, ‘if Dale Farm had been settled by New Age hippies, or planning law-breaking construction workers, [locals] would be just as angry’.

And so, taking the media-role of angry ‘Basildon Man’ is Len Gridley, a local property developer whose large house and garden adjoins the Dale Farm site. After 10 years of steady irritation over the devaluation of his property and litter being thrown over his garden fence, Gridley is at boiling point. He, like Basildon Council, wants planning law upheld and the Travellers evicted. The declarations of both Gridley and the council have been dubbed ‘racist’ because they appear to attack and disregard Traveller lifestyle. And because, in Britain, Irish Travellers are a recognised ‘ethnic’ group, criticism of behaviour counts as criticism of lifestyle and – for some, at least – this is tantamount to racism. It’s not difficult to be labelled as a racist towards Travellers then; all you have to do is voice an objection to their behaviour.

Despite this, and given the longstanding friction between Basildon’s settled and Traveller communities, the imagined groundswell of anti-Traveller prejudice has been conspicuous by its absence. Even the left-wing groups eager to speak of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘fascists’ brainwashing the locals, seem only to have found residents against the eviction. ‘I think the council should leave them alone, they’re not doing any harm. They just want to live’, said a Basildon resident of 30 years to Socialist Worker. There are many more residents similarly quoted on the Dale Farm supporters’ website.

But none of this really proves or disproves prejudice toward Travellers among the 172,000 mostly working-class citizens of Basildon. For that you’d need something far more compelling – something that at least claims to test the pulse of the community at large. Anyone reading the East Anglia Daily Times on 20 September this year might have concluded the evidence had now rolled in. ‘RACIST abuse of gypsy children has risen since the furore over Dale Farm erupted’ proclaimed the article. The paper reported that the Ormiston Children and Families Trust (OCFT), a charity that works in schools across Essex and Suffolk, was noticing how the ‘hateful views children had picked up at home had found their way on to the playground’. ‘We are urging parents and teachers to nip this in the bud’, said Geoffrey Prescott, chief executive of OCFT. He continued: ‘We are extremely concerned that publicity over the Dale Farm story has allowed adults to air some horrible views which are now being repeated in playgrounds and classrooms… The impact on the children who are being bullied is awful.’

This was an outbreak of the Macpherson mindset. Racism is presumed to have a pre-existing presence inside children’s minds and so Racist Dad, thundering over tabloid headlines, is sure to set his ferret-eyed progeny on a playground hate-spree. But is the ‘school racism hike’ headline even true?

I contacted a primary school a couple of miles from Dale Farm. The school is well known to me and currently has a handful of Traveller pupils amongst its overwhelmingly white, working-class intake. The headteacher – ever vigilant in fulfilling the local-authority requirement to report ‘racist incidents’ - confirmed that there had been none involving Traveller children so far this term. Essex and Suffolk councils (both pro-active in encouraging the reporting of incidents) confirmed there had been none. OCFT ignored my invitation to clarify or elaborate on the press report.

The Dale Farm eviction saga has not whipped up prejudice towards Travellers. The reason for this may well hint at the true significance of Dale Farm. The Travellers’ fight against Basildon Council garners a surprising amount of local-resident support precisely because this community of Travellers wants to live in houses they built themselves on land they own. The spokespeople for Dale Farm may invoke ethnic customs and traditions as a way of demanding their human rights (the right, for example, to ‘culturally adequate’ housing rather than council houses), but their actions speak louder.

The Dale Farm Travellers have settled. Even the tradition of leaving permanent sites to go summer travelling is in decline there. Over 100 Dale Farm children go to the nearby Crays Hill primary school and 50 were born on the site. In other words, Dale Farm reveals a positive shift in Traveller culture: a desire for a better life; for children to receive an education and be steered away from petty crime and towards greater prosperity; and, not least, to have a life expectancy that isn’t 10 years below the national average. If that means Basildon Council allowing a cut-price piece of old scrapyard to be built on then, on balance, it seems like progress to me (and infinitely better than forcing Travellers who want to settle to go back on to the road).

Irony seems the hallmark of the Dale Farm furore. The fact that we have a council guilty (we are constantly told) of anti-Traveller racism, yet oddly determined to uproot 80 or so families and return them to their ‘traditional lifestyle’, is ironic enough. But has the council forgotten that the new towns of Basildon, Billericay and Wickford emerged, in the prewar period, out of the need to provide working families in cramped east London with cheap land to build on? Most galling of all is to witness a council so determined to look tough and uphold planning law that it happily risks the closure of the Crays Hill primary school. This school has overcome incredible problems, raising the attainment of its Traveller pupils and playing a key role in influencing Dale Farm families to remain settled. The eviction will force 25 pupils to leave and it’s very likely that those remaining will follow.

But there is, perhaps, no greater irony than a rump of excited Dale Farm supporters racialising this issue – not just by romanticising the Travellers’ right to racial identity, traditions and customs, but by exposing their own narrow prejudice toward the white, working class.

Adrian Hart is author of the Manifesto Club report, The Myth of Racist Kids – Anti-Racism Policy and the Regulation of School Life. For more information, visit his website.

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