Saturday, 9 November 2019

Out of the past - Tories to revive racist laws from the 16th century

Did you know there once was a time when it was illegal to be a gypsy (aka Romani) in Britain?

That was between 1530, when the Egyptians Act was passed, and 1856, when it was repealed.

Amongst other things, the act forbade the entry of 'Egyptians' into England, ordered those already there to leave the country with just sixteen days grace to do it in, and gave the state the power to seize their property and dispose of it.

The act wasn't absolutely successful as a few decades later Mary I passed a follow up act that grudgingly allowed the Romani to stay, as long as they abandoned their "naughty, idle and ungodly life and company". In other words, if they settled down, assimilated and started behaving like good christian souls.

If this all sounds a bit familiar it is because it isn't just because Nazi Germany also targeted Romani as one of its gateway genocides.  It's also a new policy proposal from the Conservative Party:
Police will be able to arrest travellers and seize caravans if they set up illegal campsites on private or public land. 
Strict new laws will make it a criminal offence to occupy land with the intention of setting up home there, without getting prior permission. 
Home Secretary Priti Patel has outlined proposals to give police the power to remove unwelcome visitors. 
Currently, trespass is considered a civil matter meaning landowners face a long and expensive legal battle to remove offenders. 
'Unauthorised encampments can cause misery to those who live nearby, with reports of damage to property, noise, abuse and littering,' Ms Patel told The Sun on Sunday. 
She added: 'The public want their communities protected and for the police to crack down on trespassers. 
'Our proposals aim to ensure these encampments can be challenged and removed as quickly as possible.' 
In the Republic of Ireland, 'unauthorised encampment' is a criminal offence. However there is also a statutory requirement for local authorities to provide sites for travellers. 
Ms Patel is aiming to copy the criminal offence system and is seeking views from councils, police forces, travellers and the public on alternative measures.
There is an issue underneath this - I wouldn't like twenty caravans turning up in my garden unannounced and uninvited.  Landowners (private or public) should be able to have unwelcome campers removed without "a long and expensive legal battle".

But the proposal Patel is making is pretty obvious dog whistle politics, playing on all manner of unpleasant stereotypes and bigotries, and cynically timed for the election.  I mean, the Tories have been in power for NINE AND A HALF YEARS.  In spite of their claims to hold the concerns of the Daily Mail middle Britain close to their heart, the Tories don't seem to have been too bothered about the 'issue' (also known as people) - until it became politically expedient to pander to socially acceptable racism.

Also note that the Irish system Patel claims to be using as a model has a legal obligation for camp sites to be set up for travellers.  Patel doesn't seem to be too bothered about that, as it is "the criminal offence system" she is interested in copying, while only seeking "views" on other aspects.

Musical aside - Scotland, alas, had similar legal prohibitions against Romani.  The Scottish outlaw / folk hero James MacPherson and some of his band were sentenced to death for the crime of "being Egyptians," commemorated in the Song MacPherson's Rant, supposedly composed by MacPherson himself the night before his execution:


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