How the Scottish Tory Leader Built His Career on Persecuting Travellers

It would be game over to boast about 'battling' any other minority.

by Adam Ramsay

6 June 2024

FMQs at Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh
Douglas Ross at FMQs, 2021. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Pool via Reuters

I’d heard the rumour a few times before I managed to stand it up. The word in the Scottish Traveller community was that Douglas Ross – the Scottish Tory leader who this morning announced he is, after all, standing in the Westminster election – had built his political career on whipping up hatred of their community.

Eventually, I managed to track down a name: George Stewart. And an address in Elgin, in Ross’s Moray constituency. This was during lockdown in Scotland, ahead of the 2021 Holyrood elections, so I couldn’t go there in person. I didn’t have a phone number or email address – so I tried the old fashioned way: I wrote Mr Stewart a letter, put my phone number in it, and asked him to ring me.

Like all groups that experience racism, Scottish Travellers often have a hard-learned scepticism of journalists. I suspected he would never call me. And so, when my phone rang a few days later, and it was him, I was a little surprised.

When he told me his story of the sheer effort Douglas Ross had gone to to persecute him, I was utterly shocked.

Before he was elected an MP in 2017 – and then an MSP in 2021 – Douglas Ross was a councillor in Moray, and ended up as chair of the council’s planning committee.

George Stewart was born in the 1950s. After living much of his life on the road, as is traditional, he and his family bought a plot of land in Moray in 2010, planning to establish a Traveller site in line with both his community’s ancient ways, and also his legal rights.

But Douglas Ross, he told me, “waged a campaign to get rid of us”. He went round all the local farms, asking people to sign a letter saying they didn’t want the Traveller family as neighbours. Speaking to the local paper in 2011, Ross called his attempts to stop his constituent from establishing a Traveller site a “battle”.

Most of the Stewarts’ neighbours were having none of it. When a rival letter was circulated supporting the family, it got more signatures, and eventually, the Scottish government stepped in and approved the site.

Ross’s response to the decision should follow him for the rest of his political career: “I am disappointed and frustrated that we seem to have to bend over backwards for this ethnic minority,” he said to the local paper, in 2013.

Scottish Travellers are an ancient and distinct peripatetic community, which has its own languages and customs dating back centuries – tales of their presence stretch to early Christian Scotland, and as recently as my childhood in the 1990s, it was common to see camps on roadsides in the North East of Scotland, where I grew up. Violent persecution of them goes back centuries too – when Romani people started arriving from North India in around 1500, authorities treated the two groups as one, and banned them both. The 1609 Act Regarding the Egyptians made being a Gypsy or Traveller (they didn’t distinguish between what are in fact different nomadic groups) punishable by death. The Scottish folk song Macpherson’s Rant tells the story of James Macpherson, a Scottish Traveller who was hanged for being a ‘Gypsy’ in Keith – in what was Douglas Ross’ constituency – in 1700.

In 2015, around one in three respondents to a survey of Scots said that Gypsy/Travellers shouldn’t be allowed to be primary school teachers in Scotland, and similar numbers said they would be upset if a close relative married someone from that background. The only other community which faced similar levels of bigotry in the same survey was trans people: another group Douglas Ross has been delighted to whip up fear of in recent years.

It wasn’t just George Stewart that Ross fought against. In 2010, he voiced opposition to a different site because he thought it was too remote, and so it would be hard “to manage and control the site”. But in 2013, his committee ruled that Traveller sites should be at least a kilometre away from existing settlements. There is a term for laws which keep one ethnic group apart from another – perhaps you know it?

On another occasion, he asked planning officials what would happen if his committee took the “novel approach” of banning Gypsy/Traveller sites entirely. He was told that this would be illegal.

When he was first elected an MP in 2017, Ross said on camera that his number one priority, if he were prime minister for a day, would be “tougher enforcement against Gypsy Travellers” (when he later apologised, he only said he regretted saying it would be his top priority, not for saying that he wanted “tougher enforcement” against an entire racialised minority).

Once he was an MP, he continued to fight against Traveller families: in 2018, according to letters I managed to extract from Moray Council via the Freedom of Information Act, he tried to have a Traveller family evicted because they were “in a very visible location”.

When I put all of my research to the Scottish Conservatives before the 2021 election, they 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.”

My investigation, published on openDemocracy ahead of the 2021 Holyrood elections, was widely picked up by the rest of the press, and the leaders of every other Scottish party criticised Ross over it in the televised leaders’ debate.

But let’s be honest. If I had exposed that a senior politician had built his career on “battling” against almost any other minority, then it would be game over for him. If, instead of Traveller sites, he had been fighting to stop synagogues or mosques being built, everyone would see who he is. His time as Scottish Tory leader would have ended, and his attempt to return to Westminster would be treated with contempt.

In recent years, Douglas Ross seems to have shifted his focus from attacks on Travellers to attacks on trans people. I can’t tell you who he will come for next. But if he is allowed to continue, it will be someone.

Adam Ramsay is a Scottish journalist. He is currently working on his forthcoming book Abolish Westminster.

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