Our society needs outsiders

What Jack Straw truly loathes is the apparent anarchy with which travellers operate
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The Independent Culture
ACCORDING TO the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, Romany travellers - by which I presume he means all crusties without a crystal ball - the breadth of Britain are busy defecating on the doorstops in between "burgling, thieving, breaking into vehicles and getting away with it". Straw's words were undoubtedly accompanied by murmurs of approval from various corners of suburbia: "He's right, you know..."

At the same time as Straw has been spouting his ill-considered but effective message on local radio, resentful residents and "sponging" asylum seekers have literally been at daggers drawn in Dover. The former have been spurred on by the conviction that the refugees are "getting something for nothing" and, worse still, "behaving as if they owned the place". There's nowt a "genuine" Englishman likes more than identifying The Different, turning them into the brunt of all ills - and attacking without mercy.

In the Fifties, it was the "niggers" off the boats; in the Sixties, it was the hippie and the drop out; in the Seventies it was (and still is) Thatcher's undeserving poor, re-defined in the Eighties as "the underclass," the lawless, jobless, moral-free, track-suited citizens of burnt out council estates. The underclass were about too at the turn of the century and in the 1930s, victims of unemployment rather than moral degeneracy, as Kirk Mann points out in The Making of the English `Underclass'. Then, that particular "enemy within" was rapidly catapulted from devil into a (dead) hero of the trenches, by the simple expediency of war.

The American academic Charles Murray devoted much of his time to identifying the alleged difference of the British underclass, and in the process, isolated it from the rest of society. He was given copious space to do so in the Eighties by The Sunday Times and the Daily Mail, Some of whose readers, one suspects, are not a million miles away from Straw's firmest fans today. Murray's rag-bag "theories" then, as Straw's prejudices now, hone in on a modern-day myth. Namely, that some are living in paradise (the Kosovan refugee? the traveller in a rain-sodden tepee?), having too much too easily, while the rest of us toil and struggle not just to earn a living, but to abide by the rules, limit our fun, and all for the privilege of dying prematurely, but well covered on the insurance front.

Mann points out: "What Murray does illustrate is that it is all too easy to slide from the identification of a social group who suffer problems into the position where the victims are regarded as the social problem."

Many travellers would say that it's not they who "suffer problems", it's the capitalist, materialist, society which they are seeking to escape which is the source of grief. To make their point, they choose not to follow an establishment lifestyle - marriage, mortgage, motor car and maternity, a duo in a semi, expanding perhaps to four in the fullness of time. They are, in short, outsiders - just like the Kosovars and Kurds in Dover - and perhaps, deep down, in Jack Straw's eyes that is their greatest crime.

"I have it in for criminals," Straw responded to his critics defiantly yesterday. "What I want to see is equality before the law, regardless of the label people attach to themselves, often wrongly." Replace the word "equality" with "conformity", and Straw's condemnation of an entire tribe begins to make more sense. On that basis, what he should be damned for isn't racism, but good old-fashioned authoritarianism.

All of which, of course, is not to deny that some travellers - just like some middle-class suburbanites and working-class sons of toil - commit crime and behave in an anti-social fashion. Witness the puking and fights that break out every Saturday night - and with rarely a traveller in sight. Travellers will also tell you that many of them take far more pains than most in society to limit the impact they have on the environment as well as the lives of others because - for those interested in ideas - that is part of their philosophy.

What Straw truly loathes - as those in authority have always detested - is the apparent anarchy with which travellers operate. They challenge the social contract the state maintains with the rest of us, who are mostly highly conformist and obedient beings. According to this social contract, we yield some freedom, while the state imposes some restraints, to protect our mutual interests. Or, a cynic might argue, to protect the interests of the ruling elite. As the polemicist Naom Chomsky has written, "When a man merely reacts to external demands and authority, we may admire what he does, but we despise what he is".

This is not to denigrate the decent, tax-paying, uneventful life of the ordinary citizen. We need him and her - but we also desperately need the mavericks too, to remind us that choices still exist, that freedoms come in different forms, and that total obedience deserves to be treated with suspicion.

A couple of decades ago, Stanley Milgram, a Harvard professor of psychology, published the results of his tests into the nature of obedience. What happens when an individual is ordered to take an action which conflicts with his conscience? Will he defy authority? Will he listen to his better self?

Milgram's experiment involved a learner (a professional actor) and a teacher, an individual who assumed that the learner was a volunteer like himself. The teacher was told that the learner had to memorise word pairings. Each time an error occurred, the learner received an electric shock, ranging from minor to major - some 285 volts - at which point the learner simulated agonised screams.

An alarmingly high proportion of ordinary volunteers, Milgram discovered, sublimated their distaste for torture, into a desire to please the instigator of the experiment. They valued authority above conscience. Is it too big a leap to move from the awful implications of those experiments to today's blackguarding by Straw of what he terms "so-called" travellers? No, it's not. We need Straw's "law-abiding citizenry", but we also need the non- conformists too. (And sometimes, yes, that does mean breaking laws, not for the self-advancement of the individual but for what some define as the greater good of the community. Note the approval rating given to those who destroy GM crops.)

Paradoxically, in the process of tolerating and even supporting difference within our ranks, we may also begin to value again the importance of mutuality, that foundation stone of the welfare state. (Mutuality - there but for the grace of God go I - appears scarce in Dover, but to be overflowing in Leeds, where almost 1,500 Kosovars have been welcomed and supported and are now being helped to return home.)

"Regardless of whether people in need have been reckless or feckless or unlucky... there comes a point when the exact explanation of how... ceases to matter. They have a claim on us simply by virtue of being compatriots. The welfare state is an expression of solidarity with our fellow citizens."

Jack Straw might have written that description of mutuality, but he didn't. It was David Willetts, now Tory spokesperson on social security, writing in the Eighties, in Modern Conservatism. One exempts oneself from this social contract, Willetts went onto argue, once there is a risk of "moral hazard". "...[The welfare state] wreaks this damage by giving short-term financial rewards to behaviour which is, in the long term, destructive both of the individuals involved and society at large."

If the Home Secretary's Asylum and Immigration Bill, which comes into force next April, is any guide, he clearly views many asylum-seekers - and not just "so-called" travellers - as "freeloaders" and "freebooters" and morally hazardous to us all. These are careless views which give license to others not just to ostracise but to inflict punishment too. It's Straw's kind of propaganda which dangerously poisons the community well - not a couple of turds on my doorstep.

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