‘Standing together’ or really, ‘a race apart’?

Posted on Monday, February 10th, 2020

Written by Shamus McPhee, Chairperson of RAJPOT (www.rajpot.org.uk)

The theme of Holocaust Memorial Day 2020 is: ‘Stand Together’. While not a panacea in itself, there is a definite case for subscribing to such an approach, provided we remain mindful of certain facts.

From a Gypsy Traveller perspective, which you are entirely free to disagree with, it is worth emphasising a couple of key points here for consideration, not least, that ours is a coercive and not a collaborative power structure, where minority groups find themselves in a vulnerable position, very much at the mercy of mainstream society, and where collective thinking can result in groups that do not hold populist appeal being targeted. Jean-Pierre Liégeois, for example, avers that “… the drive to assimilate never supersedes the desire to exclude”.

While I am scarcely qualified to speak on behalf of other communities and groups who were persecuted under the Nazi regime, the messages on the Holocaust Memorial Day website resonate with me as a Gypsy Traveller. The website sets out its rationale for memorialisation of the victims thus:

   “It explores how genocidal regimes have deliberately fractured societies by marginalising certain groups, and how these tactics can be challenged by individuals standing together with their neighbours and speaking out against oppression”.

On 27 January 2000, the governments of forty-six nations signed the Stockholm Declaration, aimed at preserving the memory of those exterminated during the Holocaust.

It seems incredulous to me that people could stand by and witness a selection process which saw the Jewish community separated out for extermination, followed by the Roma and Sinti communities, followed by the gay community, followed by the disabled, and so on, in rapid succession. And even more so, that there are those who now seek to deny that those atrocities were ever committed, as if they had never happened in the first place.

In Scotland today, by charting the history of Gypsy Travellers, it is self-evident that we, too, have been separated out as part of a selection process, and continue to bear the brunt of oppressive practice on account of racial origins.

It follows, then, that, to me, the key word in the statement made by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust is that of “individuals”, since it is paramount to act, first and foremost, by tapping into our individual consciousness. If we wait around for a collective response, nothing might ever come of that.

For, the annals of history attest to the fact that ours is a badly fractured society, where entrenched and polarised views predominate. Gypsy Travellers in Scotland have long been viewed as “a race apart”, and in my experience, we are still exposed and completely on our own; history does not reveal anyone standing shoulder to shoulder with us in a robust defence of our human rights. Quite the contrary, in fact.

History betrays the collusion of key stake-holders such as the State Party, i.e., central government, the church, the aristocracy, local authorities, all enmeshed in plans to preserve the bias against status quo change at all cost, a cost that has involved concerted efforts, over centuries, to remove Gypsy Travellers from the landscape.

For instance, punitive measures against the community here, in Scotland, can be traced back as far as 1541, when being a Gypsy Traveller carried with it the death penalty; by 1571, anyone suspected of being a Gypsy could be drowned or hanged; by 1579, a Gypsy could be pinned by the ears to a tree. Many were burned at the stake.

Moving apace to 1894, a committee appointed under the scrutiny of Sir George Trevelyan took evidence at various locations around the country. This led to a report being produced in 1895, called ‘The 1895 Scottish Traveller Report’. That document signalled the intensification of top-down, structural attempts to demolish and crush Gypsy Traveller culture – a mind-set that continues to permeate bureaucratic thought to this day.

The subsequent Departmental Committee on Tinkers took evidence again, in 1917, and redoubled efforts to “anchor the tinker” and reclaim the sinner through rehabilitation, reform and enforced de-coupling of cultural bonds.

No Common Grounds, 1980, RAJPOT

From 1945 onwards, measures were ramped up several notches. We see this in the programme of eugenics rolled out in the shape of ‘Tinker Housing Experiments’. Essentially designed to effect cultural genocide, these were couched in the terminology of care in the community, dressed up as missionary work, while, in reality, inflicting severe cultural trauma and irreversible damage on the group. The modus operandi was one of punishment and reclamation.

All in all, a silent cold war was very much on the political agenda, backed up by the tightening of legislation, to seal a final turn of the screw. 

Returning to the present day, Gypsy Travellers do not bear any influence in public life: they are nowhere to be found as MSPs, on advisory committees, on race equality organisations, in the BBC, the police force, and all the while, agencies supposedly working on their behalf do not employ them. Unemployment on sites stands at 97%, and only three percent have any savings. Hitherto, there has been no show of solidarity or inclusivity within wider society. They represent one of the most seldom-heard groups in Scotland. Commonly, the human rights of Gypsy Travellers are viewed as inconsequential by the joined-up thinkers in their partnerships. Yet, human rights cut to the absolute heart, the core, the very foundations of any civilised society, and must, perforce, be observed if an equitable society is to flourish, and not be founded on a perpetual lie.

For, the failure to embed a human rights-based approach will ultimately erode and undermine the status of minority groups in our society, allowing some the power of carte blanche, to disrespect and serve up contempt to others willy-nilly. Otherwise, we will continue to bear witness to atrocities like those perpetrated during the Holocaust, and to the intersectionality of ongoing human rights abuses, to which the likes of myself have been subjected down the years.

For the words ‘standing together’ to have real meaning, it is crucial we have parity with minority groups, when it comes to the current Scottish government’s apologies granted for past failures and neglect, and commit to a genuine healing process. This MUST include consultation with the Gypsy Traveller population as equal partners so that human rights do not remain merely abstract concepts but rather enjoy their full materialisation.