Every so often, as a Labour Party member, you come across a Tory who is an absolute godsend - if you’ll excuse the use of religious allusion by a confirmed atheist.
Back in the Thatcher days you were spoiled for choice although no one ever quite came close to matching Peter Bruinvels and John Carlisle, also known to Labour members as the MPs for Johannesburg East and West on account of their unswerving support for British companies doing business with the apartheid regime in South Africa. Bruinvels, in particular, was a delight, not least because evolution had also given him that classic Tory Boy middle-aged-by-thirty chinless-wonder look that has completely gone of political fashion in recent years, apart from amongst UKIP supporters where Nigel Farage is doing a sterling job of keeping the look alive.
And by a strange coincidence, the very same constituency that gave us Carlisle, Mid-Bedfordshire, today provides another Tory godsend of any altogether different character - Scouse ex-pat Nadine Dorries and the only sitting MP, to my knowledge, to have given up her husband to spend more time with her party (she went to Westminister, he emigrated to South Africa) in addition to being the MP who cited Thatcher’s ‘right-to-buy’ policy as the reason she was attracted to politics, which makes her one of the best arguments in favour of social housing I’ve seen in quite some time.
Dorries has had an interesting start to her Commons career - it took her less that 12 months to find herself up before the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards after using House of Commons letterheads for a bit of under-the-counter electioneering on behalf of a prospective Tory councillor standing in a by-election in here constituency.
Her defence was to play dumb and claim to have been misadvised by parliamentary colleagues - and if you’ve read her ‘blog’ you’ll appreciate fully why the ‘playing dumb’ tactic worked out so well for her - the complaint was upheld but she got nothing more than a slapped wrist.
A few weeks back Dorries, who comes across rather like Marlene from Only Fools and Horses (minus the steadying influence of Boycie), got her parliamentary undergarments in a tangle after Jack Straw used a couple of comments from her blog during Thursday’s business questions, as the basis for giving the Tories a bit of ribbing, prompting her to make the ridiculous suggestion that she’s was being cyberstalked by Jack.
The truth is undoubtedly far more prosaic - Straw simply has a bag carrier monitoring the blogosphere for usable material and they hit on a rich vein of Tory idiocy when they ran across Dorries, but that hasn’t prevented her from further mutterings on the subject.
A few weeks ago you may remember that I mentioned that a very senior Labour MP had warned me to “be careful” because Labour HQ were monitoring Conservative MP’s blog sites. It appears the blogs infuriate the Labour party because they have no control whatsoever over what is written or who reads it.
Infuriate? No of course not. This issue here is not about Labour’s inability to control what’s written on blogs but Nadine’s own failings in that respect - she is, its sad report, suffering from a terminal case of foot-in-mouth as evidenced by her preceding post, the reaction to which, over at Iain Dale’s blog, occasioned that latest outburst and which stands proud a veritable classic in the annals of ‘I’m not racist, but…’ writing, to whit:
She was born in the wagon of a travellin’ show
I sang the well know song by Cher all the way home from a meeting tonight. I know all the words, I bet you do too.
I spent the night in Flitton Village Hall in the company of over 500 residents.
I was a bit taken aback by the number of people present. I drove up at 8pm, and if I hadn’t known where the hall was, I would have spotted it easily by the droves of people walking towards it.
As I got to the main gate, I was met by a lady who passed me through the crowd to another, and then another, until they got me into the hall where I went straight up onto the stage. There was no room anywhere else for me to stand, people were sitting all over the floor and the chairs had been full for some time. People were standing in the car park listening through the open windows.
I commented as I passed through the crowd how surprised I was that there were so many people there. Some joked and said, we’ve all come to see you Nadine – but I know that wasn’t the case, the meeting was about Gypsies and travellers.
Aside from exhibiting extremely questionable musical taste, it should be fairly obvious alread, exactly where this is going, which is why it should be obvious that Dorries is about to observe the first Tory rule of making comments on the subject of race relations and ethnicity and attempt to demonstrate that whatever else her motives might be, she’s actually a racist because she knows, went to school with or otherwise has friends or acquaintances who belong to the same ethnic group she’s going to slag off later. It’s the regular Tory Party production of ‘The Sixth Sense’ - ‘I know Black People!’ - or it would be if Dorries was bright enough to understand the script…
As a little girl I spent idyllic Irish holidays on my Uncle Tom and aunty Mollie’s farm in Bangor Erris, Co Mayo. My Uncle Eammon and Aunty Bridget owned the local village shop, they still do, My cousin Moira and I often used to serve in the shop.
When the tinkers called with their big horse drawn wagons, Aunty Bridget used to fly behind the counter and shoo us into the back room. The fear was that because I had Blonde hair, a rare thing in Eire, the tinkers might steal me.
One brave day when Aunty Bridget was feeding the baby, I served the tinkers, and lived to tell the tale.
The tinker was a statuesque woman, dressed in black and brown, accessorised with eyes and teeth the same colour. Her hair was long, wild and wind blown and had obviously never seen a comb or been washed in weeks. She probably had been born in the wagon of a travellin’ show.
She sat on the board at the front of the wagon and didn’t move. Moira wouldn’t come out of the shop and I couldn’t tell what the woman sat high up on the wagon was asking for. Moira translated from behind the door, and then threw the tobacco and barley twists out to me.
The tinker threw the money down to me for the goods, and then I threw them up. Moira wouldn’t let me give them to her unless I got the money first.
Moira was hissing at me from behind the door in her scared ‘Holy Mary mother of God will ye get ye’sel back in here now, Jesus ye are too close,. She’ll have ye before ye know it ”
The tinker smiled at me, which I remember shocked me, and I think I jumped a bit, she then cracked the whip on the two big horses, shouted something in Gaelic, spat her chewed tobacco at my feet, and rode off
I picnicked out on that for months.
When I got back inside, Aunty Bridget made me wash the money, and scrub my hands under the brown, peaty, icy water of the outside tap. The water pumped straight from the Owen More river which ran by less than 50 yds away.
I remember Moira and I laughing so much around the tap, I think we were relieved to have survived the scary ordeal!
Generally the idea behind the ‘I know Black people’ story is to try and establish some sort of tenuous basis on which you can then go on to defend yourself from any charges of racism, not demonstrate to the world that you come from a long-line of ignorant bigots, a point that seems rather to have escaped her on this occasion as the usual denouement for a story like that generally entails the author undergoing some sort of redemptive experience later in life, a feature conspicuous only by its absence in this case.
In 1994 the then Conservative government removed from Local Authorities the obligation to provide Gypsy sites.
The Labour Government have just re instated this obligation and my constituency has to provide 40 pitches by 2021, 20 immediately. All are to be designated in local rural villages. Feeling are running high.
And who’s decision is that exactly? Why the local council’s of course. The equation is a fairly simple one here - local towns equals lots of voters, rural villages equals not many voters, so you put the sites where they’ll cause the least electoral damage.
You’ll also notice the blatant bit of spin going on here - the council has to provide 40 pitches by 2021, 20 of them immediately - so that space for 20 caravans straight away, which could mean one site with 20 pitches, two with ten pitches or four with five pitches - anyone notice all of sudden how the idea of two-four sites comprising between five and ten caravans suddenly sounds a lot less scary.
The councils have no option, they have to do it. When I saw Richard and Tricia, local councillors, putting forward their position to the audience I realised what a tough job it can be, being a local councillor. It is a vocation, it does take long hours, and you get very little thanks. Appologies to all those standing in local elections for the first time!
But that’s not strictly true is it - the council is compelled to provide the sites but it does have options when it comes to deciding where exactly to put them.
There is a word, or rather an acronym, for this kind of thing, the origins of which are generally attributed to former Tory minister Nicholas Ridley - although the OED cites the Christian Science Monitor for first usage, but I’ve interrupted Dorries in full flow so let’s see what she has to say next.
My position on this subject is very hard line. If you want to live in Flitton village, get yourself an education, a good job, save up and buy yourself a house. Big round of applause. Not deserved though, because my hard line position is not an answer to what the residents of Flitton are facing.
There is a bit of story here that she’s not deigned to mention. The average price of a property in Flitton is currently cited as £293,826 with one street in particular - Wardhedges, being listed as the joint most expensive street in the district with an average price for a house of £800,000. The overall profile for this neighbourhood puts in the top 2.5% in the UK in terms of the wealth of its population.
Now do you feel quite so sorry for them?
Anyway I’ll skip the next couple of paragraphs, which are self-serving and irrelevant and get on to the next bit, where things get interesting again…
For all the bleeding hearts that are about to blog me and tell me that gypsies and travellers are now classed as an ethnic group because of their culture and beliefs I say this - I have no problem with that. You can believe and follow whatever culture you like – but if you want to live in England you do it living in a house, send your children to school and conform to the societal framework that the rest of us have to, because that’s how it is in Britain. That’s how we live; it’s a British culture thing.
Is it? So what, Britain has absolutely no history or tradition of travellers and travelling communities, travelling fairs, circuses or itinerant farm labour?
Of course it does - every country does to some degree or another and what we today call Gypsies and travellers we once only a very small part of a British population that was almost perpetually on the move during the summer months in rural errors, travelling from town to town and farm to farm in order to find work. In the sense of what remains of Britain’s traditional travelling communities - which is a very different matter from the so-called new age travellers who took to the roads in search of an alternative lifestyle - what we have are last remnants of a very British and very traditional way of life, one that dates back centuries.
Dorries claim that ‘it’s just not British’ is a completely ahistorical one, the product of a deep-seated ignorance of British history and culture.
Her position is one of the most abject hypocrisy - take what she has to say at face value and it might appear that she’s trying to defend the rights of a traditional rural community - in reality, the people attending this meeting are upper-middle class commuter-belt professionals who work in Central London. Thats’ the actual profile of Flitton and is there is anything still remaining of its original rural community then at £300,000 for a house the one thing you can be sure off is that they can no more afford to buy property and live there than could the travellers.
Still, she’s on a roll so lets what’s next.
If you want to show me traveller sites where there is harmony within the community, I will point out to you that on those sites the children probably attend the local school, and the families largely conform and are law abiding.
I will then take you to see some of my farmers fields, three acres in Brogbrough is where we will start, where travellers have created mayhem.
That’s an interest contrast - the sites that don’t cause problems are those where children go to local schools and their families abide by the law… because they have a properly set up site to live on. Meanwhile where there are problems - the farmers fields she mentions - the main issue is that those travellers don’t have a properly managed and planned site to live on. The argument, if you look at it properly, is entirely self defeating as the primary difference between the two scenarios is that in one there is a municipal site and the other there isn’t - so the obvious solution is to provide more properly managed and planned site where travellers can live without causing problems…
But that’s not what she wants - all she wants is to move the problem on somewhere else. Somewhere that doesn’t affect her wealthy, upper middle-class professional constituents.
NIMBYism, like I said!
There should be no such thing as a right to reside unless that residence is to take place within an appropriate home subect to all the usual planning laws and constraints the rest of us who pay tax and council tax have to abide by.
As one lady in the audience, sat on a hard floor, pointed out last night - if the new laws are about equality then surley that is equality for all. Travellers and Gypsies should have to live by the laws which make us all equal. Exactly.
And all the conditions cited above can be met simply by providing an adequate number of properly managed sites for travelling communities - sites that comply with planning law and provide access to basic amenities including things like rubbish collection, etc. These sites can be made available for rent - they’re not free of charge by any means - and the council tax necessary to pay for the amenities the travellers receive while living on-site - rubbish collection, access to local schools, etc. including in the ground rent for their pitch.
Which sounds rather a lot like the government policy that she’s complaining about.
My solution to the traveller problem is this; In Britain the culture is to live in a static home, work, pay taxes and save for the things you want in life. Live here by all means, have your own culture, as many do, however, you have to live in within the framework of the values this society operates within.
Not much of a libertarian then, eh Nadine?
This is the reality, given adequate provision in terms of access to suitable planned sites, there is no basic reason why traditional travellers should cause significant problems - the worst that can happen is that you have too much demand in one place at one time and have to move some people on to another location… as long as the provision is there.
Its a matter of supply and demand - too much demand and not enough supply at the moment, and if you increase the supply rather than demonise the people with the demand you solve the problem.
Its not that difficult if only you think about it, but then thinking, as should be apparent, is hardly Nadine Dorries’ strong suit…
Last word on this - despite the obvious ignorance and hypocrisy of Dorries’ remarks, I’m not actually suggesting that she is a racist - I simply don’t know enough about her to come to that kind of conclusion. Rather her inability to construct a cogent and honest argument here is something as I see as a more fundamental problem for the Tory Party as it tries to shake off its ‘nasty party’ image and advance a much more enlightened attitude to issues of race and ethnicity.
Even if they mean well and are committed to making the Tory Party genuinely inclusive, many Tories have no real idea of how to talk (or write) intelligently and meaningfully on questions of race and ethnicity. For now much of the Tory Party is at a stage that is analogous to that of some who mistaken refers to a Black person as ‘coloured’ in the mistaken belief that’s the acceptable way to talk - the might have good intention but their understanding of how the world has moved on lets them down and is a source of ongoing embarrassment.
Unless evidence emerges to the contrary, that’s how I’d suggest that you interpret Dorries’ comments.