Dale Farm eviction – when two tribes go to war

Posted by Alexander Hay

Beyond the hyperbole, the show-down between travellers and the 'local community' at Dale Farm reveals a great deal about our dysfunctional society, our wretched politics and our complete inability to resolve anything without conflict

Image courtesy of Save Dale Farm @ FlickrAs bailiffs prepare to evict the inhabitants of Dale Farm, and the risk of violence, not to mention bad publicity for Basildon Council, is all too real, it's worth remembering what the real issue is here.

Put simply, it is what sort of society we wish to live in. Two competing visions are being offered. On the council's side is a view of the world as essentially legalistic. The law dicates, you obey, harmony is maintained and all is well.

The ultimate expression of this is in a Magistrate's or Crown court, where the word of the Crown, and its representatives in the judiciary, is seen as final. Needless to say, such a view is shockingly naive. Laws are simply what politicians and the legal profession engage in to legitimise their behaviour or world-view.

Nor are their arguments against Dale Farm particularly convincing. Certainly, the site's many stationary homes and trailers lacked planning permission and so were in contravention of the law, but at the same time, this was also privately-owned property.

Of course, in matters of life and death, or where serious abuse is suspected, state intervention within reason is perfectly reasonable. But the question Dale Farm raises is whether ownership of land is absolute and, in this case, it is not. There is an alarming precedent being set here.

In any case, proscriptive laws are often camouflage for baser motives. Removing the travellers from Dale Farm means removing them from the local community, and their children from the local schools.

This seems a rather underhand way of dealing with any genuine social problems or incidences of anti-social behaviour. It seems the law is powerless to stop yobs but is able to move heaven and earth (or at least evict a lot of gypsies) when required.

And it is inevitable that the residents of Dale Farm, or at least those who are there illegally, will be evicted. To admit defeat would be unthinkable by the state, which is driven to maintain the illusion of being in control, especially in the wake of the August Riots, but also in a broader context.

While not on par with the Miners' Strike, in a sense Dale Farm is just as important; the stakes raised 27 years ago means even the most minor dispute from that point on had to be resolved by force. The alternative was the government being made to look weak, faltering or foolish.

Yet are the inhabitants of Dale Farm completely without blame? It would be equally naive to say yes. They have flouted the planning rules and hardly made a case for themselves. This has played into the hands of those who dislike travellers and see them as simply troublemakers with no respect for the law.

Certainly, there is a tendency in parts of the travelling community to complain loudly about their own rights but have little respect or time for anyone else's. By going about their business on Dale Farm as they have, the community there has played into the hands of those who would rather there were no travellers at all.

Nonetheless, the government made clashes at places like Dale Farm inevitable. The Criminal Justice Bill of 1994 was simply part of a greater context whereby anyone who dared live outside the mainstream was increasingly circumscribed. Councils no longer being obliged to provide berths for caravans and trailers was mere pandering to prejudice - the problem could then simply be moved elsewhere. There is something deeply primitive about the desire to just eject undesirables, by force if necessary, which may ultimately lead to more violent showdowns between 'them and us'. Dale Farm could merely be the prelude.

Of course, both sides could have gathered around a table, reached an understanding, enforced the spirit if not the word of the law, and settled the matter there and then. The site could have been tidied up and trees planted nearby, balancing out any harm done. The courts, the police and the government could have butted out and left the local council resolve the matter in a civil matter. All of these things were possible.

Instead, we have a potentially violent stand-off, a government desperately flaunting its machismo, the United Nations getting involved, and an alienated travelling community that can't seem to do anything right, regardless of how hard it tries. If nothing else, Dale Farm says a great deal about the UK in 2011, and it is not particularly flattering.

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Alexander Hay

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