openDemocracyUK: News

Douglas Ross under fire for ‘prejudicial’ Traveller comments unearthed by openDemocracy

The Scottish Tory leader faces backlash from Travellers and human rights activists after being accused of ‘divisive language’ in TV leaders debate

Adam Ramsay
Adam Bychawski Adam Ramsay
14 April 2021, 4.41pm
Ross was accused of using "divisive language and actions against one of Scotland’s most marginalised communities”.
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Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Alamy Live News

Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has been accused of prejudice towards the Traveller community by prominent ethnic minority figures and cross-party MPs.

Ross was last night questioned during a live televised Scottish election debate about “vitriolic” comments he made towards the Traveller community, during his time as a local councillor, which were revealed in an openDemocracy report published earlier that day.

Scottish Green Party co-leader Patrick Harvie alleged that Ross had “built [his] political career on divisive language and actions against one of Scotland’s most marginalised communities”.

Harvie pointed to Ross’s criticism of the Scottish government’s decision to approve a Traveller site in his former local council of Moray in 2013. At the time, Ross said he was “disappointed and frustrated that we seem to have to bend over backwards for this ethnic minority”.

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Ross’s policies towards Travellers during his ten years as a local councilor were described as “apartheid” by Lynne Tammi, an elder in the Gypsy Traveller community.

During the Tuesday night debate, Ross said: “I have always stood up for constituents who come to me seeking action on issues that they are worried about.”

Ross said he had apologised for saying he would prioritise “tougher enforcement” against Travellers, when asked in 2017 what he would do if he were prime minister for a day. 

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Members of the Traveller community said they were appalled by Ross’s response to questions about his past comments on Tuesday.

“I don’t think there is a place for people to be leading in society with the kind of prejudicial attitudes he holds towards Gypsy Travellers,” Tammi told openDemocracy.

“We have the right to be treated as human beings. We have the right to be treated equally, that’s all we ask,” she added.

Sir Geoff Palmer, a former professor emeritus at Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh who is leading a review into the city’s historic links to slavery, told openDemocracy that Ross had made “a prejudicial statement”.

“I'm not a politician, but nobody in the parliament should use those terms. It's like saying you shouldn’t be making extra efforts to give people their rights,” said Palmer.

Haian Dukhan, an academic and Syrian refugee in Scotland, said he was “horrified” by Ross’s comments, which he said showed “ignorance and prejudice of a community that has lived in the UK for centuries”. 

“Instead of pushing these communities away or attempting to force them to settle down, government policies should adopt more inclusive policies that enable them to preserve their culture with the ability to have access to health and educational services,” he said.

A 2011 census found that Travellers are five times more likely to suffer from very bad health than the population as a whole. The Scottish government estimates that Gypsy Traveller life expectancy is ten years lower than the national average. Statistics on the community are hard to gather, because Travellers often don’t self-declare for fear of persecution. 

Martin Docherty-Hughes, a Scottish National Party MP and co-chair of the all-party group on Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, told openDemocracy that Ross’s past comments were “a misguided, reprehensible attack on the ancient and historic rights of the nomadic peoples of these islands”.

Sheila Ritchie, the Liberal Democrat candidate for Ross’s Moray seat, said that Ross’s comments showed he is “completely incapable of representing the overwhelming majority of Scots” and accused the Scottish Conservatives of “retreating to a dark and dismal place”.

A Scottish Conservatives spokesman said: “These historic accusations are false. They do not accurately represent Douglas Ross’s work as a councillor, his time on the local planning committee, or his views. At all times Mr Ross acted within the Councillors Code of Conduct when he chaired the cross-party planning committee.”

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