Head of Policy & Research Craig Dalzell reflects on last week’s Policy Podcast which involved a deeply emotional interview with a survivor of Scotland’s attempt to exterminate Gypsy Travellers and their way of life.
Photo by Shamus McPhee
I’ve been running the Common Weal Policy Podcast for a little over two years now. We’re rapidly approaching our 100th episode (I’m thinking of running a Common Weal Q&A to mark that episode so if you’d like that, please email me your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and if I get enough, I’ll answer them on the show). In that time we’ve covered many of our own policy papers and broken them down into a format more accessible for the folk out there who aren’t massive geeks like me who read policy papers for fun. We’ve also covered policy news and developments around Scotland and (occasionally) around the world. This year in particular I’ve put extra emphasis on having guests on the show ranging from the authors of our policy papers to experts in various topics of interest (if you have an interesting policy story to tell or are doing something very “Common Weal” out there in the real world, please get in touch as I’d love to have you on the show).
In my time running the podcast I have never been so emotionally impacted by an interview as I was last week. I spoke to Shamus McPhee – a qualified translator, independent researcher and survivor of Scotland’s attempt to commit genocide against our population of Gypsy Travellers. You can listen to the show here.
From the late 1800s to the late 1900s Scotland embarked on a policy of “solving” the “problem” of its nomadic population by forcibly settling Gypsy Travellers (the approved umbrella exonym which, similar to the term “BAME”, doesn’t describe a single ethnic group but covers most nomadic ethnic groups in Scotland such as Roma, Irish Travellers, indigenous Highland Travellers and others – Shamus describes himself as Nacken) in inadequate housing, restricting and persecuting cultural rights such as Freedom of Movement and the removal of children from families – all policies designed to force Travellers to “settle” and assimilate into mainstream Scottish society. Shamus grew up in one of the huts “provided” to his family and thus grew up without electricity or many other amenities, surrounded by asbestos and was crammed in with several other families.
I deliberately used the word genocide to describe his story. Some have told me that this was too strong as it (rightly) conjures imagines of extermination camps (some 25% of Europe’s total population of Roma were murdered in the Holocaust) but this is only one aspect of a genocide – sufficient, but not necessary. All that is required according to the UN Genocide Convention is that certain acts such as killing, inflicting serious mental trauma or the separation of children from families take place with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. There is absolutely no doubt that the intent to eradicate the Traveller way of life from Scotland was there and that attempts were made to do so. That the total physical destruction of this people was not undertaken appears irrelevant to the Genocide Convention which ranks conspiracy and attempts to commit genocide as just as punishable as the actual extermination of a people. And as Shamus said on the podcast, of the ten identifiable stages of genocide, nine have been actively committed against Scottish Gypsy Travellers.
The truly heartbreaking thing is that even though the “Tinker Housing Experiment” has ended, the effects are still felt by the survivors of it. Shamus and many other Gypsy Travellers – settled or not – still suffers extreme discrimination in finding work (it almost broke me to hear a man who can fluently translate between English, Scottish Gaelic, Spanish and Gypsy Cant describe his current occupation as “gathering acorns”) and politicians currently in office in Scotland today have used persecution of Gypsy Travellers as a tool in furthering their own careers. Current Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross is a prominent example but far from the only one.
The campaign around the “Tinker Housing Experiment” has called for the Scottish Government to formally apologise for these historic wrongs – something that it has so far refused to do on grounds that the acts were committed pre-devolution. This is an argument that cannot be sustained in the face of other formal apologies such as the one offered to gay men in Scotland who were criminalised under laws since abolished. As Nicola Sturgeon said herself in that apology, “It is only right that we address this historic wrong…Discriminatory laws, although abolished, continue to have implications for people to this day”. Whether or not the current Scottish administration admits liability for historic injustices, it is the collective responsibility of all of us to ensure that they cannot happen again.
No matter how heartfelt, necessary or even essential to drawing a line against the past that formal apologies of this kind are, they remain ultimately symbolic. However there are more practical actions that the Scottish Government could take for the future. Compensation and restitution should certainly be considered for survivors – many of whom still live in substandard conditions and/or with the long term health effects resulting from those conditions and the significant trauma of their imposition. Doubling down on measures to monitor and fight against discrimination of any kind would be to allow all of us to benefit from a society strengthened by its diversity. The Equality Act explicitly protects Gypsy Travellers (even if they are settled) but it is still clearly failing to be enforced in too many cases. Measures to better protect the way of life of those Travellers who still live nomadic lifestyles should be increased (and encouragement and support offered to settled Travellers who wish to resume a nomadic life). As we move towards independence, we should bring Gypsy Travellers into the discussions especially around areas such as the Anglo-Scottish border (I would encourage the Scottish and rUK Governments to commit to protected Freedom of Movement rights to nomadic people over and above any other agreements to Freedom of Movement or the continuation of the Common Travel Area).
For the rest of us, we should do more to learn about the history and people of Scotland. There were many aspects to this interview that revealed my own personal ignorance and I hope that have made some small redress to that in the podcast. Many Scots are aware – to greater or lesser extent – about the historic injustices committed here in the form of the Clearances and attempts to extirpate Scots’ culture but similar attempts to do the same to Gypsy Travellers appear to be much less well known, even though many of the survivors still live. Such things may not be our fault, but they are our responsibility. “Never Again” means not anywhere, not to anyone, and especially not here or by us.
Dr Craig Dalzell