Monday, March 21, 2005

Playing the race card

Michael Howard today unveiled plans for tougher new laws against travellers - in particular, giving greater powers to local authorities to take action against breaches of planning legislation, but in addition revising police guidelines regarding anti-social behaviour, and giving local communities more say in where travellers' sites are located.

Of course, simply mentioning this ahead of an election campaign has seen the other political parties get into indignation overdrive. The Tories are playing the race card, they say, pandering to bigots and racists. How can a party be taken seriously when they are obviously playing for the populist vote and for nice headlines in the Sun and the Mail?

The uncomfortable proposition for these people, however, is that the proposals just make cast-iron sense. As unfortunate as it may be, sometimes the bigots may be right. It is surely self-evidently wrong that local authorities have insufficient ability to take action against those who refuse to abide by property law - especially when in many cases the law already grants current exceptions to accommodate the travelling community. We should not let worries of distaste stop sensible legislation from being debated and enacted.

There are other questions that arise from this. Why has this become an issue? Because the Sun has published some highly inflammatory front pages declaring "war on gypsies" and very definitely pandering to a racist streak. Howard knows he can make a sly nod to these groups whilst producing legislation that holds up. Distasteful - yes. And I question whether travellers should be made such a huge election issue. But, at the end of the day, the proposed legislation makes sense. Sometimes it is necessary to do the right thing for the wrong reasons.