Just in case anyone had forgotten that the Tories are the nasty party and that their leader, in Ann Widdecombe's memorable words, has something of the night about him, Michael Howard has given us a sharp reminder in the past week. Estimates of the gypsy and traveller population in the UK vary, but the numbers not in permanent housing are unlikely to exceed 150,000. By almost any standards, they are a disadvantaged minority, suffering high child-mortality rates and low life expectancy (on average, their lives are a decade shorter than other people's), and living mostly on caravan sites close to sewage works, rubbish dumps and noisy factories. Given Britain's housing shortages, you would have thought we would all be grateful for a minority that doesn't actually want to live in houses. You would have thought, too, that the Tories, supposedly the party of enterprise and individual self-reliance, would be particularly keen to embrace a group who are almost entirely self-employed and who provide an invaluable source of itinerant, seasonal labour.
But no. Occasionally, travellers annoy small minorities of the bourgeoisie by moving on to land in desirable areas, affecting - horror of horrors! - property prices. To crack this tiny nut, Mr Howard - or, more precisely, his Aussie bruiser, Lynton Crosby - takes a full-page ad in a national paper, claiming (falsely) that if you are a traveller, you can build "where you like". If necessary, the Tory leader says, he will scrap the Human Rights Act. He offers not a word about where exactly he would like these people to live. Perhaps he could ask his fellow Tory, John Redwood, to enlist the Vulcans in transporting them into outer space. It is hard to think of any other plausible solution except another Holocaust (at least a quarter of a million gypsies died in the first one).
As Mr Howard well knows, gypsies, travellers or nomads have been the most vulnerable minority, ever since agriculture and the concept of private property developed. In the 16th century, they were liable to be executed or, at best, conveyed to "parts beyond the seas". Caribbeans and Asians, aspiring to semi-detached houses, bank accounts and A-levels, can be accepted as "just like us under the skin". Gypsies, who are not obsessed by rising or falling house prices, are truly alien. But though some travellers are dark-skinned, and are thought to have come originally from India, they can be abused without necessarily attracting charges of racism. It's just how they behave, you see, what with them having no sinks or toilets in their homes; anyway, the hippy types are worst and they're not real Romanies. Better still, from Mr Howard's point of view, few are registered to vote.
There has always been a gypsy "problem" because societies that organise taxation, education, health and a host of other things around fixed addresses will always find people with nomadic inclinations hard to deal with. But if there is a particular problem now, it is largely of Mr Howard's making. As home secretary, he piloted through an act in 1994 that lifted the requirement on local councils to provide sites for gypsies and withdrew government funding for such sites. Since then, authorised pitches have been lost, on average, at the rate of 76 a year. No council will provide new sites - still less sites in decent places with decent services - for fear of attracting travellers from other areas. Gypsies were stopped from camping on verges nearly 40 years ago. The result is that they often buy vacant land themselves and then seek retrospective planning permission for residential sites. In 90 per cent of cases, the planning applications are refused, and so are two-thirds of the appeals. Contrary to what Mr Howard said, there is not "one rule for travellers and another for everyone else". The Human Rights Act allows inspectors to take account of the needs of the settled community. If there is unfairness, it is to the travellers. Since they have few hard-standing pitches, they enjoy less security of tenure than owners of more conventional mobile homes. True, property companies sometimes use them as a front, in the hope that a site can be cleared for housing development - but that is surely a separate issue.
How can Labour best respond? Probably by ignoring the subject - Mr Howard will not win an election by promising "action" on gypsies. But the Tory leader's strategy is clear: to bring as much prejudice and ignorance out of the closet as he can and hope that, in the resulting mayhem, he is carried to power. The campaign hasn't even started and Mr Howard is already making it one of the nastiest in living memory. Speaking in 1948, Aneurin Bevan described the Tories as "lower than vermin". That seemed a bit strong then. Let's hope that, by 5 May, Mr Howard hasn't made that gibe come true.
Time for the men to step aside
This magazine will be more complex next week. We know this because, for one issue only, it will be New Stateswoman, written and edited largely (but not entirely) by women, and because scientists (mostly male) have helpfully informed us that women operate on 46 chromosomes, while men use only 45. This may not sound much of a difference, but research reveals that it gives women 200 to 300 (or up to 15 per cent) extra genes and no doubt accounts for their ability to remember birthdays and anniversaries, to attend on small children in the middle of the night and to sustain a conversation beyond the occasional grunt. Since it is an ancient rule of elections that messages to the voters should be kept simple, it may also explain the abiding mystery of why women play such a small part in running the political parties' campaigns. Readers can look forward to more and better particulars on this and other such subjects next week.