Dale Farm: good Gypsies versus evil Essex Man?

The luvvies and leftists supporting the Dale Farm Travellers view the rest of us - the mob - as a racist pogrom in the making.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Topics Politics UK

Whatever happens over the next few days at the Dale Farm Travellers’ site in Essex – and given the High Court judge’s statement on Friday, an eviction now seems inevitable – there should be little doubt that the high-profile, Actors’n’Amnesty campaign against the eviction has made a bad situation a thousand times worse.

That the situation at Dale Farm was bad is hardly surprising. A hardly unusual tension between Travellers and locals had been ratcheted up several notches by the local council’s 10-year-long quest to move the 400-odd Travellers on, despite their having lived there for years. So, yes, it was bad. But in this small area of land near Basildon, thanks to the intervention of assorted human-rights bodies, professional protesters and even the United Nations, a local dispute about planning law has been turned into something else: it has become a symbol of a nationwide war in which the mainstream of British society, portrayed as bigoted and prejudiced to their Nimbyistic cores, is bogged down in an intractable, semi-ethnic conflict with the Travelling community, which is tirelessly celebrated and fetishised as a tight-knit, family-oriented culture in need of protection.

How did we get here? How did an argument over planning permission become an issue of persecution?

Admittedly, the fug of this pseudo war has rather obscured the fact that this was actually a dispute over planning permission. But that’s what it was: an argument over whether the Travellers, having bought the land at Dale Farm in the mid-1990s, had the right to build on it. It is not surprising that they thought they did have this right. Between 1992 and 1996, with the Traveller-restricting Criminal Justice Act (1994) then making its way through parliament, Basildon local council was quite happy to let the Travellers build on the Oak Lane half of the Dale Farm site. So for everything the Travellers built, the council provided planning permission.

But then something changed. New Labour entered government in 1997 and the official attitude towards planning permission seemed gradually to shift, no doubt under the growing influence of the countryside-loving, people-hating environmentalist lobby. Suddenly it mattered that Dale Farm, a disused scrap heap, was in the protected Green Belt. And suddenly, as a result, the building that had hitherto been permitted was now being deemed illegal. But the Travellers, quite understandably, continued to build and expand their settlement on the Dale Farm site. It was just that now, no planning permission was forthcoming – and so the dispute between the Travellers and the local council began.

In 2001, the council served the first of its enforcement notices, which the Travellers desperately tried to get repealed. In 2003, the then deputy prime minister John Prescott got stuck in, giving the Travellers two years to comply with the orders. This they didn’t do, so in June 2005 the council proposed to take direct action to evict the Travellers. The Travellers responded by taking the council to the High Court, but the judiciary upheld the council’s decision in 2008, so the Travellers then tried (and failed) to take their case to the House of Lords in 2009. And for the past couple of years, the legal toing and froing has continued right up to the current wrangling over the wording of the eviction notices.

Throughout this decade-long dispute, the council has consistently argued in terms of planning law, particularly Green Belt legislation. As then Basildon council leader Malcolm Buckley said in May 2005, ‘We have a very limited amount of Green Belt and a very large number of caravans and mobile homes at the site. It’s like a village on its own and we cannot allow our Green Belt in the Home Counties to be eroded at that rate.’

But despite the nature of the obstacle at the heart of the dispute – repressive Green Belt legislation and arbitrary planning laws – the Travellers’ case has increasingly been played out against an entirely different enemy: mainstream society’s alleged anti-Gypsy, anti-Traveller prejudices.

That the Travellers have been willing to play the victims of mass bigotry is understandable. The social, political context of multiculturalism in which the Dale Farm saga has developed demanded as much. That is, to win the right to remain on the Dale Farm site, the Travellers have not been encouraged to oppose arbitrary planning laws, an opposition that has universal significance because it involves a universal right to build (on land you own). Rather, they have been encouraged to seek a particular exemption from these planning laws on the basis that the council’s ham-fisted attempts to enforce them infringe upon their specific, minority rights. And so the Travellers have positioned themselves as a ‘culture’ under siege from the intolerant, anti-Traveller ‘culture’ supposedly enshrined in planning law.

The Dale Farm Travellers didn’t come up with this defence by themselves. Since 2000, this defence was readymade and waiting for them in the law itself. This was due to the four Travellers who won the right for ‘Irish Travellers’ to be recognised as a minority group under the Race Relations Act in 2000. ‘We hope this success will encourage other Irish Travellers to use the law whenever they are discriminated against’, said one of the Travellers at the time. It is a telling statement: race-relations law can henceforth be invoked against society if it is deemed to be discriminating against Travellers.

Given this legal precedent, given the multicultural impetus driving the Travellers to think of themselves not as individual members of society but as a distinct group apart from society, the Dale Farm dispute always had the potential to morph into a conflict between Travellers and the masses. (To talk of a conflict between the Travellers’ minority rights and extant planning legislation is only to express this Travellers-versus-society conflict legalistically.) So the ersatz cultural-cum-ethnic battle that is now being waged was always latent in the Dale Farm dispute. And this is where the Travellers’ influential crew of fellow travellers become important. At every stage of the argument between the Travellers and the local council, these fellow travellers, from state bodies to NGOs, have consistently sought to cultivate that latent potential. In other words, they have consistently sought to turn a planning dispute into a battle between two cultures, two ways of life, the one belonging to a powerful and intolerant majority, the other to a powerless and persecuted minority.

The role of the state’s race-relations quango, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), is illustrative. Back in 2004, when it was simply called the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), it announced that it was going to look at how local authorities respond to the specific and particular needs of Travelling communities. At the time, CRE head Trevor Phillips found a suitably inflammatory analogy: ‘Great Britain [for Travellers and Gypsies] is… like the American deep south for black people in the 1950s.’ Given the EHRC’s determination to find Mississippi burning in our midst, its involvement in the Dale Farm dispute, especially during the 2008 High Court case, should come as little surprise. In the words of one of the EHRC’s own reports from 2009, the EHRC is ‘continuing to work closely with the community and with Basildon Council to find a mediated solution’. So, a state-funded body has played an active role in framing a planning dispute in racial terms.

It has not just been the EHRC. In May 2008, the lottery-funded Essex Racial Equality Council gave the Travellers £12,000 to build a community centre at Dale Farm. According to a Dale Farm spokesman, this would be a teaching space not just for Traveller children but those ‘others who have stopped attending [local schools] because of bullying and prejudice’. Not only does such a separate-schooling initiative help cement differences between Traveller kids and non-Traveller kids, reinforcing the very ‘apartheid’ the Equality Council claims to be combating, the centre was then built without planning permission – a symbol, if you like, of the conflict between the Travellers’ minority rights and the rule of law.

There has, then, been an almost wilful ghettoising of the Dale Farm community by outside agents determined to turn a local planning-dispute into an indicator of the cultural-racial conflict fulminating in society at large. The climate has certainly been precipitous. In 2004, for instance, the National Holocaust Centre staged a much-publicised debate about the plight of Travellers entitled, ‘Are these Britain’s most demonised people?’. So when, in 2005, the actor Corin Redgrave was busy telling the watching media that the Dale Farm Travellers were the ‘victims of racial prejudice’, he was just repeating what bodies like the EHRC or the National Holocaust Centre were telling us was the truth. Travellers are the new Jews, the new blacks.

As the fellow travellers’ Dale Farm crusade has picked up momentum over the past year, so this portrait of a prejudiced majority hunting down a persecuted minority has become virtually the only available narrative. For institutions or individuals in want of a cause, particularly one that evokes the Good War against the Nazis, Dale Farm has become the place to be. We have seen a spokesman for the Jewish clergy justify his support for the Travellers on the basis that they, ‘like the Jewish community’, ‘have a long and painful history as victims of prejudice’. We have had a Catholic bishop declare it a ‘humanitarian crisis’. We have witnessed Corin’s sister, Vanessa Redgrave, say ‘I have always supported the Travellers… since I became conscious of what happened during Hitler’s rule’.

And of course we have seen the crusty residue of 1990s, Swampy-style counterculture descend on Dale Farm in their hundreds, mainly to cement themselves into oil drums, or tie themselves to the main gate under a great big banner which reads ‘No to Ethnic Cleansing’. Even the plonker who attempted to plunge a shaving-foam pie into the face of Rupert Murdoch, ‘Jonnie Marbles’, aka Jonathan May-Bowles, has issued a rallying cry: ‘Come to Dale Farm. You’ll be doing something amazing and you’ll have an amazing time doing it.’

Faced by what does now actually appear to be an ethnic-cultural conflict between mainstream society, represented by Basildon locals, and the minority Travelling community, it is hardly surprising that international bodies have got involved. Amnesty International, for instance have called for the council to stage a ‘genuine consultation’ with the Travellers, and, ‘if an eviction is unavoidable, to ensure adequate alternative housing which allows the Irish Travellers to express their cultural identity’. Even the UN has offered to mediate between the two sides. ‘There was communication between the British government and our headquarters’, said UN representative Jan Jarab, ‘but it was made clear to us that we would receive a letter that that offer was rejected’.

All this racialising sound and fury has ultimately done the Dale Farm Travellers’ cause very little good. For a start, it has entrenched divisions between ‘them’ and ‘us’. By identifying Travellers as victims of prejudice, the persecution narrative has simultaneously portrayed locals as the perpetrators of prejudice. A divide over planning law has become a racially demarcated chasm. So whatever local tensions there were between Basildon residents and the Dale Farm Travellers have now been reified as racial, ethnic tensions. There is no easy, pragmatic solution now.

Not that those championing the Travellers’ cause as a fight against racism care too much about the Travellers. The underpinning motivation was always born of an opposition to mainstream society, our attitudes and aspirations. In this, the Travelling community has always been an ideal instrument. During the 1990s, what attracted dreadlocked anti-capitalist types to the Travelling lifestyle was always the extent to which it served as a criticism of the rest of society. It allowed Swampy and his soap-dodging ilk to opt out of the ‘rat race’, be it the labour market or, more ironically given the Dale Farm dispute, the housing ladder. It was a way of life that appeared valuable not so much for its own merits, but for what it was not: materialistic, individualistic and all the other supposed vices of modern society. So when the countless newspaper reports currently trumpet the virtues of the Dale Farm Travellers, from their tight-knittedness to their sense of community, what is really being expressed is a distaste for life in mainstream society.

The use of the Dale Farm Travellers to have a go at the rest of society, to discipline and police the masses, is especially apparent in the charges of racism and bigotry levelled at Basildon locals. For while it appears to be progressive to call for people to be tolerant towards minorities, what this actually turns into, as the Dale Farm story shows, is intolerance towards the majority. The objections of Basildon locals cease to be understood as rational; they can be attacked by the likes of the EHRC or even the UN as expressions of prejudice, conscious or not. So in the words of the Dale Farm-supporting Guardian, what is happening at Dale Farm had been fostered by Basildon local council’s failure to ‘challenge the prejudices of their voters’. Or, as another columnist put it, ‘[people’s] racism against Travellers is so deep-rooted it isn’t felt as racism at all. For the most part, it isn’t felt any more than we feel ourselves breathing.’

And this is precisely why the reframing of the Dale Farm planning dispute as a racial conflict has made a bad situation into a wretched situation. Because when the problem has been redefined as society’s anti-Traveller prejudice, the solution is both obvious and ominous: correct society.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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