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Roma Rights 2 2015: Nothing About Us Without Us? Roma Participation in Policy Making and Knowledge Production

7th, December, 2015

The Gypsy Council – Approaching 50 Years of Struggle

Thomas Acton and Andrew Ryder


This article is dedicated to the memory of Dr Donald Kenrick, activist and scholar, who sadly passed away in November 2015, a leading member of the Gypsy Council and author of numerous works such as The Destiny of Europe’s Gypsies, and Gypsies from the Ganges to the Thames who inspired many. For the Gypsy and Traveller families he helped to win planning cases and to develop family caravan sites and for the Roma migrants for whom he helped secure asylum, countless gained security and access to health care and education thanks to Donald, for them he was a true Romani Rai.

England’s Gypsy Council, which was founded nearly 50 years ago in 1966 and hosted the First World Romani Congress in 1971, is an iconic element of the diverse history of the Romani social movement. This paper contrasts the leadership styles of its most important long-serving secretaries or chairmen, Grattan Puxon, Peter Mercer, Charlie Smith and Joe Jones, and assesses the historical lessons that can be provided for community struggles today.

During the 1960s and early 1970s the Gypsy Council seemed a ‘radical’ new form of community politics triggered by the campaigner Grattan Puxon. Puxon, a non-Gypsy, was something of a romantic figure. He had attended the elite Westminster public school but rejected the values of the establishment and fled to Ireland in 1960 to avoid national service and the prospect of having to fight in Cyprus to preserve a patch of Britain’s crumbling Empire. In Ireland he eked out a living as a journalist and became involved in the struggle of Travellers/Gypsies driven by the rural economic crisis into large unauthorised encampments on the periphery of Dublin. He bought a bowtop waggon, and moved to live alongside them.

Puxon threaded family networks and traditions into a coherent campaign against the eviction of Travellers, which drew on the theory of non-violent direct action protests. In many respects Puxon was what Freire termed as an “outsider catalyst”,1 a mobiliser and galvaniser.2 The highpoint of this radicalism was probably the stand-off at Cherry Orchard in 1964/5, where the police withdrew from the threat of an eviction at a large unauthorised encampment in Dublin because of the huge number of Travellers that Puxon had amassed in protest at enforcement and eviction. Puxon was eventually arrested, held on remand for a few days until released on bail, on charges of storing weapons for the Irish Republican Army. Eventually the charges were dropped and Puxon was released from prison and pressurised back to the UK.3

In the UK Puxon replicated the tactics employed in Ireland. Two existing groups in England, the Sevenoaks Gypsy Resettlement Committee and the Manchester Society of the Travelling People had sponsored his return, and with their support he cultivated the support of a range of English Gypsy and Irish Traveller groups, who like their counterparts in Ireland, were enduring great hardship through a shortage of sites and eviction. In 1966 the Gypsy Council was formed, and through non-violent direct action in response to evictions it became a rallying point for English Gypsies and Irish Travellers.4 In a way reminiscent of the radical US community organiser Alinsky who used non-violent direct action to provoke and bait the establishment,5 Puxon was able skilfully to exploit the media attention that evictions aroused. As Acton notes “The Travellers began to realise that they were not totally powerless; they had the threat of their nuisance value in creating adverse publicity, if nothing else; if they organised, they could reach out for power.”6 Amongst its high points the Gypsy Council campaigned for a new law to oblige local authorities to provide Traveller sites (the 1968 Caravan Sites Act, a private member’s bill introduced by Eric Lubbock, M.P., now Lord Avebury) and in 1971 staged the first World Romani Congress in London which, aside from the adoption of a flag and anthem (Gelem Gelem), promoted a sense of internationalism and fraternity between Roma/Gypsies and Travellers which remains to the present day within the Romani Movement. Soon after the 1971 Congress, Grattan Puxon, suffering from fatigue, and feeling the Gypsy Council now could and should carry on without him, and in that year elected (joint) General Secretary of the IRU, moved to Eastern Europe to fulfil that role, accepting an invitation to stay in the Roma settlement in Shuto Orizari.

The radicalism of the Gypsy Council and its fluid and anarchic organisation may be ascribed to the fact that it was largely free of the strings attached to donor-driven agendas. Ultimately though tensions revolving around the charismatic and driven leadership of Puxon and attempts to lure the Gypsy Council into a service-delivery orientation by educationalists, as well as efforts by some traditional community leaders to usurp UK Romani activism, created a series of fissures and splits which weakened the Gypsy Council.7

From the late 1970s the Gypsy Council experienced a renaissance over which the English Gypsy Peter Mercer presided as chairman. Mercer had been taken into care as a child when a dog on the site barked at a visiting policemen, and placed in a Roman Catholic orphanage, and then when he reached the age of 16 placed as a skivvy (menial worker) in a hotel from which he had to run away to find his family again. A 2013 interview provides some insights into this experience:

Thomas Acton – “I always thought your abduction by the state and fighting your way back to the community gave you an inner steel”

Peter Mercer – “I was put into care [a Catholic children’s home] and taken away from my parents…a lot of this was down to what I am. I had to put up with the Sisters of Mercy (a community of Catholic nuns), their treatment of children! …they would come and take you away. I was not a Catholic and they baptized me to keep me. I had just turned 8, I saw people come in and go and I would say ‘When can I go home?’, and they would say ‘When your mum gets a proper home, when she moves into a house.’ They were sadists, they would cane you for nothing, that was their idea of corporal punishment”.8

His time in the Catholic orphanage and then the army gave him insights into the non-Gypsy world and an ability to bide his time, to build bridges and forge understanding, skills which served him well in local disputes over stopping places, and in his later roles as a Gypsy Liaison Officer and chair of the Gypsy Council and later the National Federation of Gypsy Liaison Groups. In this work Peter was sustained and supported in part through his strong working relationship with his brothers-in-law and co-workers John and David Day. Thus Mercer, through a more consensual and deliberative leadership style, managed to regroup and unify many of those who had left the Gypsy Council.

In the 1990s the Gypsy Council was led by Charles Smith, who also became a Labour Councillor, Mayor and Race Equality Watchdog Commissioner. He sought to ‘modernise’ the Gypsy Council and transform it into a well-funded and staffed NGO. In this venture the Gypsy Council was only partially successful and some would even question the merits of this quest. Some key members, Peter Mercer, Eli Frankham and Sylvia Dunn left to concentrate on other organisations, thus perhaps disseminating the organisational lessons of the Gypsy Council further afield. Possibly Smith’s and the Gypsy Council’s greatest role in this period was to perform its historic role of ‘galvaniser’ in a wider umbrella group known as the Gypsy and Traveller Law Reform Coalition, in which Smith was a crucial player.9 The Gypsy Council’s dependence on a few key figures was sorely tested by the deaths within a short period of time of Chair Charles Smith and President Josie Lee, and the disabling illness of long-term secretary Ann Bagehot. The Gypsy Council managed to survive even after a financial crisis forced its de-registration as a charity and the leadership passed to Joe G Jones and Joseph P. Jones, who took a somewhat reduced Gypsy Council back to a more traditional informal style of organisation, exhausting themselves in the process, but keeping the idea of a campaigning rainbow coalition alive. This attracted – as it was bound to! – campaigners who were not satisfied by the other larger groups, constrained by funders and dominated by particular ethnic groups. The Gypsy Council now has two co-chairs, Valdemar Kalinin, a Rom, and a charismatic Irish Traveller who goes by the nom-de-guerre of Phien O’Reachtigain (incidentally, the brother-in-law of former chair Joe G. Jones). There is an English Romani Secretary, Caroline Willis, who is a private site-owner like many of the Council’s supporters, including the philanthropic Brazil family who run the South-East Romany Museum in Marden, Kent (and are also mainstays of the Churches Network for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma). It has a Pakistani treasurer, Khurram Khan, and an English community work adviser, Phil Regan, and it has brought back into active membership its founder, Grattan Puxon, who also leads the April 8 movement, UK followers of Peter Antic’s campaign for democratic renewal in the international Romani movement. They are looking forward to celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Gypsy Council on December 12th 2016 in the same venue where it was founded.

This brief review of the Gypsy Council charting a range of organisational approaches, which can be seen in a variety of other organisations within the Romani Movement, prompts a series of questions which have relevance for campaigners today:

Can organisational structure nurture or stifle activism?

The Gypsy Council is arguably at its most agile when links to funders are minimal and the organisation depends on membership fees and unpaid activism. A frequent complaint in recent decades has been that the Romani Movement has undergone a process of NGO-isation, in which donor-driven agendas and hierarchical management forms have subverted and emasculated grassroots activism.10 On the other hand funding has enabled a professional cadre of Romani leaders to learn the ropes and develop skills to equip them in decision-making roles and in some respects become an effective lobbying force which has been influential at a European level.11 In addition, organised civil society has been effective in providing new role models and leadership positions for women, contributing to the dilution of the restraints of patriarchy.12

Some though hold the fear that civil society is being increasingly tamed and subverted by the state. To use the term of the New Right, ‘pulling back the state’ has been accompanied by a series of governmental strategies and technologies (governmentality) aimed at shaping institutions and subjects in particular ways and proliferated in regimes of enterprise, accounting and commodification.13 Policies which invoke the language of social inclusion rest upon narrow, assimilative interpretations of what it is to ‘civilise’ and integrate.14 Such structures lead to bureaucratic processes stifling funding streams for community organisations and creating projects with limited goals to achieve service adjustment or give the impression of consultation. This imposes hierarchy on community organisation and constrains community leaders to dance to the tunes of their funders, smothering their appetite for more transformative action.

At the end of his life, Nicolae Gheorghe, an inspirational figure in the Romani Movement, was consumed with the question as to how the Romani Movement could achieve more of a connection with Roma communities and more effectively mobilise those communities, emulating the success of the Romani Pentecostal Movement and competing more effectively with the lure of tradition which could be insular and self-oppressing.15 In this quest Gheorghe may have been right in identifying and even embodying essential ingredients in the formation of a dynamic Romani social movement - namely conviction, integrity but also transparency and accountability. Grassroots activism as espoused by Gheorghe could turn the process of governmentality on its head, and seek a new accountability predicated upon social justice and empowerment, where the state is de-centred and accountable to a civil society composed of what has been called “deliberative publics”.16 These will have been built from the ‘bottom up’, where excluded people can develop self-help and reciprocity through forms of mutualism and participation, which will shrink and ultimately dissolve what Gough et al. have called the “spaces of social exclusion”.17

Are strong leaders important catalysts of campaigns or can they disempower?

A series of strong characters shaped and tempered by struggle and hardship was a prominent feature of the Gypsy Council’s leadership. Puxon had come from a comfortable and privileged background, his life presented though an intense resistance to what has been termed the British establishment through his conscientious objection and refusal to fight for ‘Queen and country’ and perhaps most challengingly, through his alliance with Gypsies and Travellers. Through this activism Puxon became a central and charismatic figure amongst Gypsy and Traveller families. Acton noted that in tense situations where the threat of eviction loomed families would become calmed and reassured by the news that Puxon was on his way.18 Around him Puxon was able to support and mobilise a network of leaders, often prominent in their locales or within large extended families. Yet perhaps Puxon’s driven personality disempowered and undermined his avowed objectives of empowerment. Few could keep up with Puxon as he raced from one scheme, eviction or project to another. Whilst this frenetic activism could inspire and mobilise, members of the campaign started to feel the community was not in control, leading to disputes and tensions. The tempo of his activism and the disputes that arose eventually took a heavy toll and Puxon succumbed to that all too common of activist ailments - ‘burnout’ - physical and emotional exhaustion.

Although Charles Smith differed from Puxon in his aspiration to see the Gypsy Council become a more formalised and mainstream NGO, like Puxon Smith was a charismatic figure with a strong sense of self-belief; bright and articulate, he saw himself as a figurehead. Smith was also brave, living openly with his partner George, despite the censure of more conservative-minded members of the English Gypsy community. In his later years Smith succumbed to cancer. He had been advised by doctors to avoid overwork and anxiety and medical advisors counselled him to take a break from the stresses of UK Gypsy politics. Smith continued, though, until his death. However, such had been Smith’s presence, in the wake of his death the Gypsy Council seemed to be lost and bewildered.

In retrospect it may have been Mercer’s more deliberative and collective leadership approach that represented the most successful phase of the Gypsy Council, restored a greater sense of unity to British Gypsy politics and attracted an array of community leaders, put at ease of any fear of being eclipsed by Mercer’s more collegial approach. Puxon and Smith were both unique characters, but a lesson to be learnt is that overreliance on one leader can be detrimental not only for the community but also for those who assume such classical leadership roles.

Are educated leaders the most effective?

It was Puxon’s elite education that often made him a desirable asset in community struggles. Unlike many of the Gypsies and Travellers of his age, Puxon was not only literate but he possessed the requisite cultural capital to mediate with and persuade authority. As noted above, ultimately though some of the community leadership came to resent that centrality and dependence. Smith and Mercer were what Gramsci termed “organic intellectuals” - despite limited formal education, they were able to school themselves in the art of politics through activism and struggle.19 In the case of Smith he was able to acquire the necessary skills to become a mayor. Freire realised the capacity and potential of those at the margins to be the masters of their own destiny.20 It gives some hope for the organic Roma intellectuals of today that centres of power have started to embrace the rhetoric of empowerment and coproduction as symbolised by the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies, although there are fears that these pledges and entreaties may drift into verbalism and tokenism.

Effective campaigning, though, requires not only the raw leadership and insight of the organic intellectuals but also those equipped with more formal education to service the aspirations of these leaders and translate and articulate campaign aspirations into policy papers and professional advocacy. In the 1960/70s few Romani activists could perform such roles, but Elizabeth Easton was a precursor of today’s educated Roma advocates. Easton joined the Gypsy Council when she was just 16 years old. She was working as a junior in a solicitor’s office, having left school at 15. Her mother and father, Gypsies from Surrey, had settled in a house when she was 9, and against expectations she passed the 11+ selection examination to go to grammar school, where she was subjected to marginalisation and discrimination.

With another young Traveller woman she joined a Flamenco class at a London community centre which also hosted meetings of a newly-formed offshoot of the Gypsy Council, the National Gypsy Education Council.21 After one meeting, Grattan Puxon wandered over to the group of girls in the centre café sitting in brightly coloured costumes, and told them they really ought to be Gypsies to dance Flamenco. Elizabeth replied “I am a Gypsy”. After Puxon had explained the work of the Gypsy Council, she volunteered secretarial help. Thereafter she came every Saturday morning to 61, Blenheim Crescent where Grattan Puxon had moved into a flat above that of Dr Donald Kenrick. Kenrick supervised her typing, somewhat impatiently, as at the age of 16 she was less immediately competent than the graduate volunteers he was used to. She persisted, and made her mark in the Gypsy Council when she was one of 11 activists who barricaded themselves in a caravan outside Buckingham Palace in 1972. Thomas Acton recalls his surprise as in the police station this slight, self-effacing young woman, dressed like a city secretary, used the English Romani dialect volubly to reassure Gypsy men twice her age who were distressed at having been arrested for the first time. After that Elizabeth played a major role in the Gypsy Council and became treasurer of the Gypsy Council offshoot, the National Gypsy Education Council. At the same time she returned to full-time education and gained a degree from the London School of Economics. Elizabeth Easton paved the way for later strong and independent women, who now form a central part of Roma advocacy. In some quarters this cadre of highly educated and professionalised Roma have been accused of becoming disconnected from Roma communities.22 This may be true, but skilled leaders are and will be needed to create a Romani Movement which can penetrate and shape the very highest reaches of power.

At the very start of the Gypsy Council, Puxon recognised the value to campaigning of having closely allied academics, to promulgate and mobilise knowledge production in support of campaign aims. The academics Donald Kenrick and Thomas Acton became longstanding stalwarts of the Gypsy Council and fused research with activism. Such approaches were not welcomed by all in academia. Some imbued with more scientistic notions have denounced such activist researchers’ work as being tainted with activism, whilst their own work is proclaimed to be more objective and neutral, better serving the interests of policy makers. These tensions and disputes continue to this day, but the ranks of the activist-scholars have been swelled by some of the new generation of Roma PhD-holders often influenced by feminist and critical thinking to favour co-production. Many of these Romani researchers, frustrated by the elitism of scientism, have been engaged in a series of ongoing disputes with the academic establishment centred on relations with the researched, ethics and commodification.

What role should non-violent direct action play in the campaign for Romani emancipation?

The first Gypsy Council meeting was held in 1966 in a pub in Kent which had a sign proclaiming “No Gypsies”. Overriding the objections of the landlord made the inaugural meeting itself an exercise in militant resistance to discrimination. Resistance to eviction became a prominent feature of the work of the Gypsy Council, generating publicity, attention and recruits. Noted publicity stunts such as parking trailers outside Buckingham Palace, Downing Street, or Parliament, were staged. The non-violent direct action of the Gypsy Council in part reflected the methods in vogue at the time, such approaches having been employed with great effect in the civil rights movement in the USA. Although such efforts were also used in the 1970s and 1980s by other Roma, Gypsy, or Traveller organisations in Western Europe, and even taken into the 1990s by Rudko Kawczynski who was able to mobilise such methods amongst migrant Roma in Germany, Roma activism has drifted into more professional and sanitised forms of advocacy.

Although the value and importance of high-level advocacy and lobbying with national governments, the Council of Europe and the European Commission needs to be appreciated, the dearth of grassroots protests is to be regretted. For a group still marginalised and disempowered in political and media discourse, non-violent direct action, where grounded in the needs of communities, with a touch of imagination can provide agency and a counter-hegemonic narrative. Needless to say such an approach is not an effective strategy in itself. It needs to be counted as part of an armoury encompassing legal challenge, lobbying and community-based politics, threaded to broad grassroots-based social movements which operate at the national and transnational level.

The Next 50 Years

The founders of the Gypsy Council would be surprised and pleased at the proliferation of Romani NGOs across Europe, pleased at progress made but equally disappointed at the mountain still to climb. One feature that would please these pioneers is the sense of fraternity that has been forged across Europe between Gypsy, Roma and Traveller groups, reflecting the Gypsy Council’s commitment to work with and for Gypsies and Irish Travellers which, although it has aroused some opposition, has generally remained a core feature of UK activism. This breadth of vision and desire for broad alliances has been facilitated by recognition of the intersectionality of social struggle, and the increasing alliance of anti-racist, anti sedentarist (difficult for some East European Roma intellectuals), anti-sexist, anti-disablist, and most recently anti-homophobic actions.

Austerity as reflected in cutbacks to services and grants available to civil society has neutered sections of civil society including that of the Roma. Simultaneously the economic crisis has prompted a wave of anxiety and scapegoating, fanned by securitisation and nativism marching to the clarion call of the Washington Consensus. The Roma appear to be amongst the most prominent groups in the ‘firing line’ of these rampant reactionary forces. But we should not be consumed by a sense of despair; possibly out of this crisis and the contradictions it exposes the political pendulum will swing in a new direction creating a new politics where social justice is brought to the fore. An ability to connect with those at the very margins but also forge broad alliances of supporters, which transcend class, gender, sexual and national classifications, will be a prerequisite for radical social movements seeking transformative change in the coming years.

A long wish list could be produced as to what the campaign for Romani emancipation might need to do in the next half century, some of which has been touched upon in his article. Perhaps the most important ingredient that needs to be retained is a sense of hope. Freire theorised the value of such belief and conviction “Without a minimum of hope, we cannot so much as start the struggle but without the struggle, hope, as an ontological need, dissipates, loses its bearing and turns into hopelessness. And hopelessness can become tragic despair. Hence the need for a kind of education of hope […]. One of the tasks of the progressive educator, through a serious correct political analysis, is to unveil opportunities for hope, no matter what the obstacles may be.”23

Acton describes the mood and sense of optimism that is often evident at the birth of a new movement, evident when the Gypsy Council was formed in 1966:

“People who came into that movement at the time were caught up in a great surge of enthusiasm, a feeling of new awakenings and mighty forces stirring, a belief that the persecutions of the centuries could now in a brief space be ended by our efforts.”24

The great challenge for activists in their struggles in the coming years will be to rekindle and/or nurture such hope.


  1. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Harmondworth: Penguin, 1972). 
  2. Andrew Ryder, Sarah Cemlyn, Thomas Acton, Hearing the Voice of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers: Inclusive Community Development (Bristol: Policy Press, 2014). 
  3. Thomas Acton, Gypsy Politics and Social Change (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974).
  4. Ibid
  5. Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Political Primer for Practical Radicals (New York: Random House, 1972). 
  6. Acton Gypsy Politics and Social Change, 156. 
  7. Ryder, Cemlyn, Acton, Hearing the Voice of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers
  8. Ibid., 40. 
  9. Ibid
  10. Nidhi Trehan, ”In the Name of the Roma” in Between Past and Future: The Roma of Central and Eastern Europe, ed. Will Guy (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2001). 
  11. Melanie Ram, “Interests, Norms and Advocacy: Explaining the Emergence of the Roma onto the EU Agenda”, Ethnopolitics, Volume 9 (2) (2010):197-217. 
  12. András Bíró, “The price of Roma integration”, in From Victimhood to Citizenship - The Path of Roma Integration, ed. Will Guy (Budapest: Kossuth Kiadó, 2013). 
  13. Michal Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics. Lectures at the College de France, 1978-79, (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008). 
  14. Huub van Baar, “Scaling the Romany Grassroots: Europeanization and Transnational Networking” (Conference paper, Re-activism: Re-drawing the Boundaries of Activism, CEU, Budapest, 2005). 
  15. Nicolae Gheorghe, with Gergő Pulay, “Choices to be Made and Prices to be Paid: potential roles and consequences in Roma activism and policy making” in From Victimhood to Citizenship - The Path of Roma Integration, ed. Will Guy (Budapest: Kossuth Kiadó, 2013), 41-101. 
  16. Archon Fung, “Creating Deliberative Publics: Governance After Devolution and Democratic Centralism”, The Good Society, Volume 11, Number 1 (2002): 66-71. 
  17. Jamie Gough, Aram Eisenschitz, and Andrew McCulloch, Spaces of Social Exclusion, (New York: Routlege, 2006). 
  18. Acton, Gypsy Politics and Social Change.
  19. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971). 
  20. Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
  21. The ’flagship’ summer schools and education work brought the Gypsy Council into alliance with a number of committed educationalists. With Gypsy Council activists they formed in 1970 the National Gypsy Education Council (NGEC) as a registered charity. It was chaired by Lady Plowden, who had led the committee which produced the Plowden Report in 1967. 
  22. Gheorghe, with Pulay, “Choices to be Made and Prices to be Paid”. 
  23. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 1998), 3. 
  24. Acton, Gypsy Politics and Social Change, 48.


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