GYPSY Travellers in Scotland are involved in an uphill struggle, as they always have been, to retain their culture and win respect, dignity and proper recognition in wider society. Many are concerned that, despite some progress, they are still the victims of institutional racism, which accompanies and feeds the casual racism they suffer in everyday encounters with the settled community.

Status as a recognised ethnic minority community was only won in 2008 – not through any government enactment or ruling in one of the higher courts of Scottish law but in an industrial tribunal case, MacLennan v GTEIP.

Ken MacLennan was a social worker sacked for his advocacy for ethnic minority Scottish Gypsy Travellers. His employer’s defence rested on the fact Gypsy Travellers were not an ethnic minority.

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MacLennan, a non-Traveller, built a case from evidence to the contrary supplied and testified to in person by members of the Scottish Gypsy Traveller community, Shamus and Roseanna McPhee, from Bobbin Mill in Perthshire, and Glasgow-based academic Professor Colin Clark.

Employment Judge Nicol Hosie listened carefully (nothing was offered by the GTEIP in its own defence) and the case was won – Hosie described the evidence as “overwhelming”.

The McPhees and Professor Clark used shared memory, language and historical record going back hundreds of years to prove that, like their Romany cousins, the Scottish Gypsy Traveller community had its origins in the diaspora from India more than 1000 years ago.

Concerns that the 2008 test case might be weak as a legally enforceable definition of ethnic minority status because it came through an industrial tribunal rather than a higher court were seemingly allayed in 2012.

In November 2010, the then minister for equalities, Lynne Featherstone, replied to a letter from Katy Clark, MP for North Ayrshire, at the time. She confirmed that in terms of the Equality Act 2010, “Scottish Gypsy Travellers are a distinct racial group as determined by case law, and covered by all the provisions of the Act relating to race.”

This could only be overturned by a higher court – and this has never happened. Somewhere along the way, things began to slip, however. Ethnic minority became conflated with colour and this is evidenced through small things.

But when pieced together these are experienced by members of the Gypsy Traveller community in Scotland as a threat to the protections they should enjoy under the Equality Act.

This is not to diminish the current wave of Islamophobia stoked up by leading Tories, or the need to call it out and issue challenge.

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But perhaps that focus, and the one on antisemitism, has sidelined progress for those whose difference is less visible.

This was exemplified by the official response to an incident that took place in a shop in Perth in March last year. A woman Scottish Gypsy Traveller was called a “dirty mink” by a man unknown to her who was a security guard in an indoor shopping centre.

She reported this to the police but their quite perfunctory inquiry decided this did not constitute a crime and made no charge against the clearly identified individual involved and did not refer her for victim support. Their finding was based on a belief that “mink” is not a term of abuse applied particularly to the Gypsy Traveller community. The victim complained about this outcome and Police Scotland eventually decided (several months later) that a hate crime had in fact been committed.

The individual was charged and referral made to Victim Support. However, the procurator fiscal in Perth refused to take the matter to court. His letter to the victim briefly stated that “... the facts which can be proved do not constitute a crime known to the law of Scotland”.

A review was requested and the decision upheld. Clarifying this, the “response and information unit” of the procurator fiscal service in Edinburgh advised: “... the accused is unknown to you and therefore there is no evidence to support that he would have known that you are from the travelling community (sic), or that such a word would be considered by those in the travelling community (sic) as racial slur. The word used by the accused is Scottish slang for describing an individual with poor hygiene.”

It seems some police officers are not alone in failing to understand hate crime and the reality of racism outlined in the Macpherson Report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. The absence of capitals in naming the minority community speaks for itself. Hate crime, including racist abuse, is in part self-defined. The Police Scotland website says: “The legal definition of hate crime is any crime which is understood by the victim or any other person as being motivated (wholly or partly) by malice or ill will towards a social group”.

The victim here believed that the term “mink” was associated with the term “tink” or “tinker” which is inarguably used to pejoratively describe members of her community, and she suffered offence at this racial abuse.

This view is supported by other members of the community, including a friend who witnessed the incident (who was not interviewed by the police officers who dealt with the initial inquiry).

In fact, such was the victim's distress that she has found it difficult to go into the shopping centre where it took place and has related this in the review requests and complaints made since.

The conflation of ethnic minority with colour, which might explain (but not excuse) the barriers described, is embedded within the rules of Scotland’s party of government, the SNP.

Their membership definition for their BAME (Black Asian and Ethnic Minority) organisation states it is open to anyone who does not tick any of the boxes in the “white” ethnic categories in the National Census questionnaire, Gypsy Travellers are classed as white in the census and therefore excluded from the BAME lobby. Labour’s BAME groups are open to anyone who self-identifies as ethnic minority, a practice shared with trade unions such as the UK’s largest, UNISON.

This is confirmed as proper practice by the Scottish Human Rights Commission. A web article about Scotland’s Gypsy Traveller Community and its struggle for human rights, from October 2023, confirms the importance of self-identification “as a cornerstone of minority rights”.

Shamus McPhee told the writer he feels that in the system’s failure to protect his community from “endemic discrimination, structural racism and marginalisation”, they are victims of “cultural abnegation”.

The evidence seems to support this but the Scottish Government, which has work under way in relation to the Gypsy Traveller community, does have the power to apologise for past mistakes and lead positive change. Any failure to make such progress will confirm the view that ethnic minority status, and the protection it brings, is slipping away.

Colin Turbett is a member of the Common Weal Care Reform Group