'A very nice man' - Michael Gove visits Billy Welch - Exclusive

24 May 2023

Billy Welch on politics, Brexit, Boris Johnson, the Police Bill, using the ballot box, the campaign to save Brough Hill Fair in Cumbria – and the visit by top Government Minister Michael Gove. Exclusive interview with the Travellers’ Times.

“Michael Gove came to see me, he was a gentleman, a really nice man, and it was lovely to meet him,” says Billy Welch, recalling the recent meeting between himself and the Government’s Secretary of State for Levelling Up who visited Billy at his office on the Gypsy and Traveller site that he has in Darlington.

“I gave Michael Gove a tour of my site and then we went to my office and I showed him the gallery we have of historical photos of my ancestors,” says Billy. “Michael Gove was very interested and he asked so many questions about my ancestors, our history, and our way of life today. He wanted to stay longer, but his secretary had to pull him way for another appointment.”

The meeting, which took place just before the recent local elections earlier this month, had been arranged by Peter Gibson, Billy’s local MP for Darlington, who came as well, alongside Councillor John Dulston, the then Leader of Darlington Council.

Billy Welch
Left to right: Michael Gove, Billy Welch, Peter Gibson MP and JCllr John Dulston

The topics they discussed ranged from local issues, to the Police Bill and the criminalisation of trespass, to past and current Prime Ministers - and on to Brexit.

However, top of the list of things to discuss was Billy Welch’s most recent passion, which is the campaign to save the historical Brough Hill Fair in Cumbria.

Billy was keen to get the support of his local MP in a campaign to stop Brough Hill Fair from being destroyed by a new dual carriageway planned by National Highways that will connect the M6 at Penrith and the A1(M) at Scotch Corner and which will make the current site of the fair untenable.

Brough Hill Fair was started in 1330 in Brough town, before moving onto Brough Hill in 1385 during the bubonic plague which ravaged Europe in the 12th Century. It is an example of one of the many fairs that may have not been started by the UK’s Gypsies and Travellers, but which instead have certainly been kept alive by them so they are not only just historical events – but a thriving part of today’s culture. Billy - who also sits as the Gypsy and Traveller representative on the coordinating group of councils and police services who come together to make sure the world-famous Appleby Horse Fair runs smoothly - says that the route can easily be changed at no extra cost and that National Highways are running rough-shod over the legal right of the fair to exist and ignoring the cultural and historical significance of Brough Hill Fair. The National Highways planning application for the road is currently waiting for a decision from the government planning inspectorate – but this could take months and, in the meantime, the next Brough Hill Fair is set to go ahead this September.

Brough Hill
Historical postcard of Brough Hill in full swing, courtesy of Bill Lloyd.
National Highways
A National Highways mock up visualisation of the new site they are offering for the Brough Hill Fair; Public Domain

“National Highways are not willing to provide us with a suitable alternative site for the fair,” says Billy. “This is an ancient fair, protected by law and what National Highways are doing is illegal. They have offered us an alternative site for the fair, but it will have a motorway on one side, a cement works 30 metres away from the gate on another side, and a massive industrial farm complex on the other side. The alterative they have offered is unacceptable and far too dangerous to camp on, especially with horses, and if we took up that offer, the fair would die and 700 years of a continuous Brough Hill Fair will be brought to an end.”

“This fair has a cultural and spiritual significance for Gypsies and Travellers,” says Billy. “Our ancestors have come to Brough Hill for hundreds of years, and when we go there today, we feel a sense of place and a sense of belonging.”

Billy Welch
'A sense of place and a sense of belonging' - Billy Welch's Grandmother and mother at Brough Hill Fair in the 1970's (c) Billy Welch

Billy Welch is too diplomatic to say much about what else was discussed, but he is keen to get his political views across to anyone who will listen.

Billy voted Remain in the referendum, yet then voted for Boris Johnson – one of the architects of the Leave campaign, as was Michael Gove himself – in the 2019 general election.

“Channel 4, who haven’t always done my people many favours, did get something right,” says Billy. “They sent a news crew to Appleby Fair during the Remain/Leave campaigns before the referendum and interviewed Gypsies and Travellers, myself included, about how they were going to vote. I said to the interviewer that on balance I was for Remain. The result went against those of us who voted Remain, and we are now all feeling the effects of that,” adds Billy. “We have lost freedom of movement – I have travelled all over the European continent – and trade and business with the EU is harder and Johnson’s attitude to Europe was not going to make anything easier. I hope that the new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will change that.”

'The vote went against us' - photo from Wikki Commons

When I ask Billy why he voted for Boris Johnson in the 2019 General Election, he tells me that he didn’t feel he had much choice. Billy, who is descended from Sinti and Romani people, many of whom were murdered in the Holocaust, explains that the then Labour Party, under Jeremy Corbyn, was mired in claims of anti-Semitism at the time and that this was a big factor in his vote. “Anti-Semitism is the same thing as Anti-Gypsyism,” says Billy. “They both stretch back for centuries and both my people and the Jews suffered in the Holocaust and still suffer from racism today,” adds Billy. “There is a recognition of that between my people and theirs.”

“I was extremely disappointed in how Boris Johnson behaved once he was in power,” says Billy. “Laws were passed, like the Police Bill that criminalised travelling, that harmed my people.” That law and the language around it, stoked up hatred and racism – much like the Brexit campaign and Boris Johnson’s way of dealing with Europe afterwards, explains Billy. “I hope the government doesn’t fall into the trap of causing even more division by passing any more laws that are ‘populist’.”

Boris Johnson
'A disappointment - plus Johnson's Government brought in 'populist' anti-Traveller laws (c) Open Government Licence

Now that Boris Johnson is no longer Prime Minister, Billy is hoping that Rishi Sunak will knuckle down and change gear from the Johnson era and repair the UK’s relationship with the European Union. Billy sees signs of that already happening. He also hopes the Government do not try to distance themselves from the European Court of Human Rights, “which has protected the rights of our people when Governments sometimes fail to.”

I ask Billy why he thinks a top Government Minister, a leading MP, and a local councillor – all three are Conservative – came to visit.

“Why shouldn’t they?” answers Billy. “We are an important voting constituency. I always encourage my people to use their vote, take part in democracy, and get out there and get our voices heard. The days when we just existed in our bubble and let (the gorjas) exist in theirs are over. That is not how my people are going to survive and thrive today. Many of our people are instinctive conservatives, running businesses, entrepreneurial, and with conservative values,” explains Billy. “That said, I had Sir Kier Starmer visiting here to discuss politics not long before he became Leader of the Labour Party.”

Billy Welch
'The days when we just existed in our bubble and let the gorjas exist in theirs are over' - Billy Welch speaking out against the Police Bill at a Drive2 Survive Rally (c) Ludovic

“Governments and councils make decisions that affect the lives of Gypsies and Travellers and we need to keep the politicians on their toes by becoming valuable to them,” explains Billy. “If we don’t vote we have no value to them. We have got to use the ballot box.”

I discuss with Billy the recent local elections – which were very tight with lots of Conservative Councillors losing their wards to a slew of candidates from the resurgent Labour, Lib Dem and Green Parties (Darlington Council changed hands from Conservative to Labour control, although Cllr John Dulston retained his seat as a ward councillor). The next General Election in 2025 is going to be close as well, notes Billy. Tight races are good for democracy, explains Billy, adding that when a political party takes power with a landslide victory – like Boris Johnson’s Conservatives did in 2019 – “they can act like dictators and do what they like”.

“In a tight race, our people’s votes could make a difference,” says Billy. “So, I am urging all Romany Gypsies and Travellers to engage with politics, get registered, and to use their vote.”

Mike Doherty/TT News

(Lead photo courtesy of Billy Welch)