First they came for the gypsies, disabled, migrants and unions

Boris Johnson
Tracy Keeling

Boris Johnson’s government laid out its plan for the country in the Queen’s Speech on 19 December. The vision it has for Britain is terrifying. Not only does it confirm some of the loathsome promises made by Johnson during the election campaign, but it also contains alarming new ones.

It’s going to be a long five years and Britain’s going to be a very different place at the end of them.

Enemies of the people

In the plan, Johnson has reaffirmed a manifesto pledge to make living for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities effectively illegal. Within the Police Powers and Protections Bill, the government will look at:

Start your day with The Canary News Digest

Fresh and fearless; get excellent independent journalism from The Canary, delivered straight to your inbox every morning.




Potential measures to criminalise the act of trespassing when setting up an unauthorised encampment in England and Wales, and the introduction of new police powers to arrest and seize the property and vehicles of trespassers who set up unauthorised encampments.

The government says the change will “strengthen the powers” police have to “tackle” unauthorised encampments. As George Monbiot has said though, this amounts to “legislative cleansing” of GRT communities. Because there aren’t enough authorised encampments in England and Wales for them, so such legislation would not only allow for the seizure of their homes, it will effectively criminalise what GRT communities do to exist.

The right to strike?

Meanwhile, the government will effectively ‘cleanse’ transport workers of their right to strike by legislating to maintain “a level of service” on transport during strikes. This could severely reduce the impact of strikes, which are meant to be debilitating in order to bring employers to the negotiating table. Plus, “Minimum Service Agreements” will have to be in place before strikes go ahead and:

Any strike against a rail employer shall be unlawful unless a Minimum Service Agreement is in place. If the Minimum Service Agreement is not honoured, the strike shall be unlawful and injunctions or damages may be sought against the union in the normal way.

To say this undermines the strength of unions is an understatement.

Easy targets

Both groups, GRT communities and strikers/unionised workers, are easy targets for the government – as disabled people and immigrants were before them. In fact, immigrants remain a political plaything in the plan. The government says:

Developing and reinforcing UK immigration controls and ending free movement will give the Government greater control to reduce the overall number of migrants coming to the UK, with fewer lower skilled migrants.

This is effectively a class-based system of immigration, where ‘low-skilled’ workers aren’t allowed in. So who’s going to do the low-skilled jobs? British people who probably won’t be earning £10.50 an hour because the government has confirmed its minimum wage pledge will only happen if “economic conditions allow”.

Racism against GRT communities is the last ‘acceptable’ form of prejudice, as a young woman who criticised the policy on BBC Question Time said. And unions have been vilified since Margaret Thatcher’s days. It’s no wonder the government is taking aim at them.

But once precedents are set to effectively criminalise whole communities or actions by groups within the population, it’s easy for such legislation to be tweaked and targeted at others.

Enemies of the state

Johnson’s plan also contains some moves that would severely limit people’s ability to hold his power to account. He’s, for example, aiming to repeal the Fixed-Term Parliament Act. This would allow the prime minister to call an election whenever he wants without parliament having any say in it. That could be very useful to a PM, in political terms. Meanwhile, when those politically expedient elections come around, the government’s also changing the rules so voters have to have ID. This is a barrier to voting in a system that has next to no fraud to make such a change necessary.

Furthermore, the government is considering whether to update “the Official Secrets Acts for the 21st century”. It’s also looking at updating treason laws. The Official Secrets Act determines what punishment is given to people who leak sensitive government information. Whistleblowing, or leaking, is a crucial check on power. And such checks are essential for democracy to thrive.

But updating this law has long been an aim of the Conservatives. In 2015, the then-government tasked the Law Commission with reviewing the Official Secrets Act. In 2017, the commission published some of its ideas. It wanted the maximum penalty for release of unauthorised disclosure of classified information, i.e. whistleblowing, to go up from two years in prison to potentially 14 years. And while currently the law only applies to UK citizens, the commission advised it should apply to anyone, anywhere in the world.

It also reviewed current classifications of what constitutes ‘damage’ from a leak. And it proposed that “information that affects the economic well-being of the United Kingdom in so far as it relates to national security” should be included.

The current UK government says it will look to the “final recommendations” of this same Law Commission for its ‘update’ of the Officials Secrets Act.

The ultimate enemy

One powerful check on the power of the executive in the UK is, of course, the legal system. But Johnson has plans for this core safeguard in our society too. The government says:

We will set up a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission to consider the relationship between Government, Parliament and the courts and to explore whether the checks and balances in our constitution are working for everyone.

The legal system didn’t ‘work’ for the government for sure in recent years. It ruled that its arms sales to Saudi Arabia were illegal amid the kingdom’s vicious assault on Yemen. It also ruled that Johnson’s prorogation of parliament was illegal when he suspended parliament to push through Brexit by 31 October.

Again, it’s also a convenient time for any PM to take aim at the legal system and other institutions. People eager for Brexit to be done and dusted may well feel animosity to courts for the prorogation ruling. They may also feel like parliament deserves a kicking for its role in the Brexit debacle.

But the “checks and balances” these institutions and mechanisms provide are vital.

A dark place

Minorities, empowered workers, elected politicians, whistleblowers and effective courts are all essential features of a diverse and functioning society. They are part of the reason we call ourselves a democracy. If the government weakens, axes or cripples these things, we can’t claim to be one any more. In fact, that sort of oppressive and dictatorial society would be more aptly described as an authoritarian state.

It’s time for us to stop singing God Save The Queen and start asking her/him to save us all. It looks like we’re going to need it.

Featured image via screengrab

Get involved

  • Find out more about how to challenge the new police threats to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities
  • Every working person has the right to join a union, find out which one’s for you here or join Unite who represent workers from all sectors

Since you're here ...

We know you don't need a lecture. You wouldn't be here if you didn't care.
Now, more than ever, we need your help to challenge the rightwing press and hold power to account. Please help us survive and thrive.

The Canary Support
  • Show Comments
    1. Prejudice against the GRT community is not the single final acceptable bigotry: It is almost de rigueur on the Right to be prejudiced against the poor. Of course, all these measures to prevent people challenging the executive serve the essential purpose of defending property. That is the essential matter and Labour should learn to focus relentlessly on it. The question of leaving the EU has been a distraction driven by the Right. For decades the attention of the masses has been directed, by propaganda from the Right, to the issue of EU membership. This has provided the opportunity for a rhetoric of us against them, taking back control, being independent once more and so on, all of which is vacuous. That the masses have responded is in keeping with the historical pattern: when people are under threat, their incomes cut, their services diminished, their work reduce to routine, their autonomy taken away, they look for scapegoats and easy answers. Hilter convinced the disillusioned German masses that if only the Jews could be dealt with, all would be well. The Right have convinced a broad swathe of the masses that if only we can leave the EU, the sun will never stop shining. The trick is simple but devastating: people pick up on the positive and deny the negative. The arguments for leaving the EU have never had balance, but people don’t care about balance when they’re under pressure and looking for a facile solution. Johnson has turned his Party, which was predominantly Remain among its leadership in 2016, into a hard-line Leave organisation. In addition, he is driving it in an authoritarian direction because that is the best way to shut down on the politics of fairness, to defend the rights of property. He may face opposition from some in his Party who on principle are more liberal, but the instincts of Tories are always for property. If the rich do well, they will keep quiet about authoritarianism.
      Labour’s key policy should now be PR. Whatever happens in the next election, if it were fought under PR Johnson wouldn’t have a clear majority. Labour,given the SNP’s position, is unlikely ever to win a big majority under FPTP. If Labour and the other left of centre parties go into the next election promising electoral reform, and the Tories don’t, Johnson will lose millions of votes. PR is the single most important policy for Labour now. It is the way to ensure we never again elect a hard Right government on a minority of votes.

    2. They came for disabled I’ll mentally ill people’s then they took away their recourse justice cab taking and robbed by Chris’s grey under RTU IDs but now they coming for the worker’s widening their aktion T4 plans it’s now gaining momentum rolling faster by the day

    3. Just feels like history repeating, remember something similar in the 90’s with the first two big demo’s I went too, protesting against the criminal justice bill/act, was loads of petty, spiteful stuff in that legislation, especially aimed at travellers, free parties and the young. Don’t know why there aren’t more facilities provided for people who like to move about, save a lot of ‘gerr off my land’ fist waving.

      Think it’s the way tories, especially the establishment types are educated, they have this really old fashioned view of a pecking order, which then entitles them to shit on people they consider beneath them, while teaching them to kiss their arses. The old kick below and kiss above, wish more would see through this canard, as it encourages stunted personal growth.

      1. Reminds of how the Nazi’s began in 1933.
        With the likes of Cumming, Banks and Bannan involved is it any wonder, neither of those gentlemen have any regard for Democracy of the people, for the people by the people, they want Autocracy’s around the world and put the public in it’s place.
        Very dangerous.

        1. Agreed, what makes things worse it’s mainly the same culprits (exceedingly wealthy americans) that caused the problems in both eras. Back then it was the industrialists, oil barons and the like, now it’s the membership of the council for national policy, various think tanks and other shysty groups.

          The old adage ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, springs to mind, but in fairness growing up my generation were taught the most superficial triumphalism about ww2, never got a more considered view. It was only after wanting to understand what my grandparents went through especially my grandad after he died.

          I consumed as much info as possible about ww2 and came full circle after watching a presentation by edwin black, who’d done work on ibm and the holocaust. I always thought and was taught that the nazis represented the most virulent form of white supremacism, turns out they were front men for the american robber barons and eugenists.

          https://www.c-span.org/video/?178617-1/war-weak-eugenics

    4. I wonder how this article and subsequent comments would read if the author and contributors had an illegal encampment of travellers opposite their homes…..

      We have been living this hell for 2 years, in the formerly peaceful and quiet country location into which we moved to bring up our children.

      Multiple break ins (including thefts from the local disabled riding school), huge amounts of rubbish (including drug/substance abuse paraphernalia), loud parties, verbally abusing and threatening local residents, dangerous driving in untaxed and unroadworthy vehicles (e.g. handbrake turns at our children, trying to spray them with snow whilst they made snowmen on the verge), closing the road with old Vans blocking so they can run horse and trap racing, old caravans dumped in the road and most recently our dog being deliberately poisoned.

      I would have no problem with the traveller community if they obeyed the law and did not display such serious antisocial behaviour. However, they simply don’t do either and it is due to this the government is (hopefully, please!) taking action. Do you think these changes to the law would be considered if the traveller community were not creating these problems? The behaviour of travellers used to be a big problem in Ireland and the Irish parliament changed the law, giving more power to the Garda, very similar to what our government are now considering. However, the Irish law changes simply resulted in the travellers coming into the UK. The growing, illegal community on the AONB Greenbelt land opposite us, are all Irish.

      1. I understand your situation, my family experienced this exact type of harassment too, and it was very upsetting.

        However, looking at both sides, my family also did plenty to deserve that treatment as they treated those Gypsies with hatred and contempt from the moment it became apparent they were legally entitled to the land adjacent to my family’s rather large garden at the time.

        My mother always claimed the Gypsies started it, but quite honestly if they (my parents) hadn’t been so stuck-up and superior, or hadn’t tried to get them evicted from land they were entitled to in the first instance (my parents didn’t like the thought of Gypsies living next to their property, and this was in the wilds of Shropshire), and instead tried to make peaceful bridges, this would not likely have occurred.

        My parents were snobs who actually caused the hatred to increase due to the fact they were not interested in peace, only the value of their property. All the attempts by them to make peace came too late, and still without the necessary desire for non-judgemental, peaceful relations.

        My parents were, surprise, surprise, Tories, and as someone has already insightfully pointed out, Tories are mostly concerned about protecting property, not about people.

        I am not saying that you (Boggie) are like my parents, but I do wonder just how much empathy was at play before it all kicked off. It is so important to walk a mile or two in someone else’s shoes. In my family’s experience (of which I am the only one who learned the right lessons) they jumped to conclusions at the first sight of Gypsies, and then proceeded to make a case against them, whilst all the time maintaining a false air of innocence which they could use to cajole local services into doing something about.

        There are humans who prefer to live in buildings and have a fixed home, and there are humans who prefer to live a mobile life, this has been true for hundreds of thousands of years, this is why we have Nomadic Tribes, and non-Nomadic tribes (and probably partially Nomadic Tribes).

        It is a fact that those who are not nomadic, generally have a very low opinion of those who are nomadic by nature, and vice versa, this is due to the fact that Nomadic peoples are freer than non-nomadic peoples (in principle at least), and this breeds resentment from those who feel trapped, but are not nomadic by nature.

        Because our system has treated nomadic people like they are scum and criminals for a very long time (persecuted just as vigorously as Jews in history), and by continually limiting their travel and camping options, decreasing year on year, decade after decade, the areas where they may live their nomadic lifestyles, it is obvious that the Nomadic cultures in our nation have become more hostile towards the system and non-nomadics.

        The rulers of this world (on the whole) do not like nomadic peoples because they are harder to control, tax, and punish, and are working more for their Nomadic Communities rather than our much larger fixed communities. It is as wrong to try and force Nomadic peoples to give up their culture and ancient lifestyles, as it is to force non-nomadic peoples to live on the move.

        A little understanding, and a desire for workable solutions that enable nomadic people to live their lives in peace, without harming non-nomadic people’s peace, is attainable, but in order for that to happen we need enough people to care about Humanity rather than the property of humanity.

        Here’s food for thought, if the World turns into a dystopian Hell-scape of the type we see often in TV Shows and Films, nomadic peoples are the only ones who may give our species a chance to survive, being that they are more likely to know and carry life-surviving skills. I know I’d fancy my survival chances more with Nomads than city-slickers if (and probably when) the World descends into unrestrained chaos. I doubt whether they however would find my skills suitable.

        There are good and bad people everywhere, and in every group, organisation, collective, ensemble, party, gathering, or meeting of minds, you can never guarantee that someone won’t prove to be the Bain of your existence, but what is also true is that for every 1 arse-hole, there are a larger number of non-arse-holes (though there’s also dicks, pricks, fools etc., etc.). Don’t tar the whole lot because of the experiences of the few. It strikes me as absurd that we learn these valuable things in school, then promptly do the opposite as we enter adult life.

    5. Given the millions of voters unable, or severely delayed in their attempts, to get to work and earn a living by the recent spate of rail strikes, I can imagine widespread support among voters for Boris’s proposals for constraining such strikes. Conversely, I suspect that Corbyn’s plans for extending union power and enabling secondary picketing, sympathy strikes and flying pickets are similarly highly unpopular among voters who just want to work without intimidation. Strikes impinge directly and very negatively on voters, disproportionately than on the businessmen. And it inevitably rebounds on those strikers over time: how many miners or steelworkers do we have left now?
      This is the key problem for Corbynistas: it is the voters who really matter, not the Unions or Momentum. Thus, preaching to each other, like one sees so much of on the Canary, is just so much hot air, and that is something the Tories understand, but Corbyn’s supporters don’t.
      Boris listens to the voters, whilst Corbyn listens to his supporters.

    6. I do hope you are not trying to suggest I am like your parents, they sound like deeply unpleasant people, I genuinely didn’t have any prejudice before the travellers arrived and I am certainly not a Tory voting snob as you say your parents are. In fact, when the travellers arrived, there were some residents in our road who were scared and angry. I was the voice of reason and actually tried to engage with the travellers as neighbours as I like you, had misguided and rose-tintented ignorance about the traveller’s lifestyle. However, it sadly transpired that they were not the friendly, land and animal loving nomadic people I hoped they were.

      Currenty they are trying to extort money from us by saying if we all get together to pay them a very large amount of money (in cash) they will leave. If we don’t pay, they will expand the site further with more Irish gypsies. The land their are occupying is protected AONB land in the heart of the green belt. They were ordered to leave the land by the authorities over a year ago but they are still there. In fact, since then, they have now concreted the area, built a number of permanent structures and have doubled in size,

      We have genuinely done nothing to provoke them, I can honestly say that all the provocation and aggravation has been entirely one way, believe me. Whilst I (still) agree we should be careful not to paint all travellers with the same brush, the vast majority of the modern traveller community do NOT fit the romantic image of lovely, friendly Romany nomads, in painted wooden caravans, drawn by placid old shire horses. By far the more common experience is very negative. Do some research and you will soon see how the modern travelling community are the architects of the prejudices against them. This is not about how people vote (we have representations for all parties here) it is about antisocial behaviour and unacceptable lawlessness.

      I have to say that I am not entirely convinced about your ‘parents’ story but if it is true I do feel sorry for you. However, I simply do not believe that if you had travellers move in next to your home and had done nothing to antagonise them but experienced all the issues we have since they arrived, you would still feel any empathy toward them. As you said, try to walk a mile in a man’s shoes, i suggest you consider those of my family, especially my poisoned dog, spasming on the floor with blood coming from her mouth and anus. What did she do to deserve that? Was it simply because she had barked a few days earlier when one of the travellers came up the drive to explore the rear of our house (all caught on camera).

      I genuinely had no prejudice at all against the travelling community, and have done absolutely nothing to antagonise them but they have completely changed my view of travellers for ever. Whilst I do agree with you that all are not the same, there are only a very small proportion of the Traditional Romany Travellers, living off the land in peaceful coexistence , the vast majority are far from that and my experience has left me struggling not to become prejudiced against them. I do not want to be like your parents…

      1. I am not suggesting you are like my parents, and if you are happy in yourself that you really didn’t do anything to antagonise, and that you made efforts at peaceful relations with your new neighbours, then you are not at fault. However, I can’t see why or how you would think I was comparing you directly to them, rather than just using your post to highlight the need to not tar all with the same brush.

        I understand that having gone through such trauma you will be a little bit ‘sore’ on the subject, but my account, though similar to yours, is not the same situation, nor did I bring this up to add to your woes, but merely to provide an example of how it isn’t always one-sided.

        Like you, I am aware that there are some nasty, and very nasty people in our society, but also like you, I am aware that not everyone is the same, and that no-one should be judged on the basis of group membership, but on their own personal recognisance and good standing.

        I am however disappointed that you feel I am making what happened to my family up. I’m not, I know just how unpleasant and dangerous conflict with ANY neighbour can be, but I also know that arguments and nastiness are not usually unprovoked. That isn’t to say it doesn’t happen, but nor is that saying that it always happens.

        One thing I can generalize about however, is that all humans have flaws, and all human beings make mistakes, some of which blow out of proportion very quickly, some that don’t. I wasn’t there with you when all this happened, but then neither were you with me in my family’s situation.

        Your reaction however, does lead me to wonder if your story is as one-sided as you claim, and the fact that you can’t believe my parents behaved the way they did does indicate to me that you have a predisposition to elitism. Protecting those you don’t know, about whom you have literally no facts or knowledge (other than what I gave you), in contradiction of my own understanding and experience of MY parents. Your natural reaction to my news is to doubt my account why? Does it point to some truth you are hiding? or is it merely that your experience was that traumatic, that you are ultra-sensitive on that subject?

        I never once doubted what you claimed about your experiences, but in the environment we are currently living in, one where all the things the Nazi’s did to others are being revived and strengthened (attacks against the poor, disabled, LGBTQI+, Jews, Muslims, Gypsies etc,), it is important (if you care about your world) to not get caught up in sweeping generalisations, and to keep perspective.

        I agree there are travellers and Gypsies who do not help themselves or their communities by their words and actions, however I will continue to point out the fact that they as a people and society have had more than their fair-share of historic hatred and trauma levelled against them, and that much of that hatred comes from a bigoted viewpoint, usually devoid of the facts of historical context.

        I don’t appreciate the romanticism that you brought to the table, as if I am somehow engaged in blue-sky thinking, when I am just elucidating the facts of history. I’ll put that down to your traumatic experiences, but I will say that it is unhelpful to ignore their history, to not walk a mile or two in their shoes.

        Hatred does not grow out of nothing, violence does not come into being all on its own, and people don’t tend to be nasty unless they too have been subjected to prolonged and consistent abuse. Human beings are human beings, Gypsies, travellers, you, and I are not so different that we can’t empathise with others, but it is only our collective efforts towards understanding and empathy that can make for a better world, hatred, and bigotry do not increase the peace, they destroy it.

        Saying that, there are of course situations where people are treated woefully by others, even unprovoked (well seemingly unprovoked as there is always a reason that human beings behave badly towards one another), but one does have to ask the question why did you post what you posted on an article entitled “First they came for the gypsies, disabled, migrants and unions”?

        I doubt very much you would have posted your very personal experiences on a subject entitled ‘First they came for the disabled, migrants, and unions’. Also the article was about Tory attacks on minority groups, but you CHOSE to respond by recounting how badly you were treated by … Gypsies.

        That tells me that you have a psychological bent towards Gypsies, and whilst you claim you did nothing to cause this, your actions here suggest otherwise. I posted about my experiences because my Mother in particular claimed the exact same as you, almost to the letter, but she forgot that I saw how they were behaving the day the gypsies moved into the site at the bottom of their garden in Shropshire. They kept themselves to themselves right up until my parents decided to try and have them removed.

        It was only after they had taken action against them (behind their backs btw) to have them removed, that they found out the gypsies were legally entitled to camp on that land, AND to apply for planning permission to build a home on that land … that didn’t stop them (my parents) and then months and years of attack and counter attack took place, with proceedings turning ever nastier on BOTH sides. Angry people are NOT capable of higher thought or reasoning, and by this point peace overtures had become pointless in both directions.

        I do however have sympathy for you, regardless of who started it, or who ‘won’ it. In my view it’s loss all around, loss for you and your family, loss for the Gypsies you were having issues with, and loss for society. It certainly was a loss all round for peace, and my parents and family too suffered, but then so did the Gypsies they had issues with, and the community around them all. No one covered themselves in glory, the Gypsies eventually won their case to be allowed to build a home on the land at the bottom of my parents property, and my parents divorced and sold up.

        At the end of the day, blame whomever you think was really to blame, but the truth is that no-one benefits from it as it breeds racism, creed-ism, sex-ism, bigotry and so much more nastiness (of which I am sure you are well acquainted). Your experiences were terrible, so were mine and my family’s, but so were the Gypsies experiences, and arguably, in historical context, they have been persecuted as a group and society for hundreds of years, where as you and yours, and mine likely have not.

        You need to ask yourself why you posted what you did in response to an article that wasn’t even talking about the issues you have. Literally one word in that title prompted your post, and that says things about you which you should be aware of, but clearly are not (or are distracted from due to your experiences).

        I’m not trying to be horrible, I’m just asking the right questions, and pointing out that as adults we teach our children to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, so maybe we should actually do that ourselves too, and whilst we’re at it, some honest self-examination can be a boon too.

    Leave a Reply

    Join the conversation

    Please read our comment moderation policy here.