Imagine an English village building an effigy of a car, with caricatures of black people in the windows and the number plate “N1GGER”, and burning it in a public ceremony. Then imagine one of Britain’s most socially conscious MPs appearing to suggest that black people were partly to blame for the way they had been portrayed.
It is, or so we should hope, unimaginable. But something very much like it happened last week. The good burghers of Firle, in Sussex, built a mock caravan, painted a Gypsy family in the windows, added the numberplate “P1KEY” (a derogatory name for Gypsies which derives from the turnpike roads they travelled) and the words “Do As You Likey Driveways Ltd – guaranteed to rip you off”, then metaphorically purged themselves of this community by incinerating it. Their MP, the Liberal Democrat Norman Baker, later told BBC South East that “there is an issue about the rights of travellers which has to be respected, but also the duty’s on travellers to ensure that they treat the areas in which they are living with respect … That did not happen in Firle earlier this year which is why the Bonfire Society has taken the act that they have.”
Racism towards Gypsies is acceptable in public life in Britain. Last month the Now Show on Radio 4 satirised “pikeys” running fairgrounds “with no safety documents”. It would surely never crack jokes about “pakis” or “yids”, or suggest that members of another ethnic group typically engage in dodgy business practices. When Jack Straw was home secretary he characterised Gypsies as people who “think that it’s perfectly OK for them to cause mayhem in an area, to go burgling, thieving, breaking into vehicles, causing all kinds of other trouble including defecating in the doorways of firms and so on”.
Read the rest if you have a few moments. It’s extremely enlightening, and also sad to see antiziganism hitting the headlines yet again, though not surprising – the rise (and disguise) of far-right politics is perhaps a symptom of the economic crisis.