OK, online comments are susceptible to being gamed in various ways. Do not look for statistically representative samples there. Still, if that is what the Guardian is like, just imagine what the Mail is like. (Upon inspection, slightly less angry, although it is difficult to judge.)
It did not used to be like this.
Within a few weeks of moving to my present home seventeen years ago someone mentioned that gypsies – or travellers, people made no distinction then and I will not now delve into the distinctions between Roma, Sinti, or English and Irish travellers – were camped on a nearby field. My neighbours then were a little dubious but not that bothered. I, being new, was more interested in hearing about the gypsies than the people telling me were in telling me. Nowadays? Instant, intense suspicion.
A decade back I hardly ever read about travellers or gypsies in the papers. Nowadays – well, looking at the links above, the Guardian mentioned them on February 5th, January 30th and January 21st.
Was the change in the gypsies themselves? Partly. “Welfare” has continued its steady work of ruin. I read a very fine article in the Telegraph about a decade ago which I cannot now find. It described with sadness rather than hostility how, although gypsies had lived half outside the law since time immemorial, there had at one time been countervailing incentives to build relationships of trust with settled people. The gypsies had regular circuits and seasonal work. They needed pitches, employment and customers. They needed people to remember them from last time as good workers and fair dealers. Welfare has eroded that, and their former means of making a living have gone the way of the cart horse and the tin bucket. Nor is the difficulty just that technology has moved on, it is also that the bureaucratic net of form-filling and taxes has tightened so that the casual jobs they once could do within the law must now be done outside it. As in the drugs trade, in illegal trade in labour where there can be no redress for swindling on either side, such swindling is commonplace.
But I really don’t think it is the gypsies themselves who have changed so much. What has changed in the last few years is that they have become a state-protected group. God help them. State protection is better than state persecution as cancer is better than a knife in the ribs. The scapegoat of the Bible was symbolically loaded with the sins of the people and driven out to starve in the wilderness. The anti-scapegoat of our times is symbolically bedecked with the conspicuous virtue and tolerance of the elite. Someone is set to feed it scraps so that it stays near to the common people, that their lack of virtue and tolerance may be made clear to them.
Some years ago a group of gypsies or travellers broke in and spent some time on land belonging to some people I know. They did damage, most as an accidental side effect of having broken in and lived there, and some for the hell of it, as far as anyone could tell. When hearing about this from several speakers, I noticed an interesting thing. The voices telling of the damage done and what it would cost to repair were annoyed but resigned. The real venom came into their voices when they described the police response, or rather the lack of it. The cops had hummed and hawed and then intimated that ejecting the trespassers was all too much of a political hot potato. If you want to poison a human soul with racial hatred, just do that. Tell him that the laws that burden him do not apply to them. The author of the first Guardian article to which I linked pretends in hope that we still romanticise gypsies; he cites modern authors of gypsy memoirs and George Borrow’s Lavengro and other works (here’s a fascinating snippet from Borrow on gypsy names). The commenters are not interested. What they want to talk about is planning permission: how come they need it and travellers do not. And what enemy of the gypsies could have done them as much harm as whoever thought up this?