Today's comment: Demolishing the Nuremberg Defence

Expenses

Last summer, during the period that was until recently considered Gordon Brown’s nadir, Fleet Street was astonished as two of the PM's biggest press supporters, the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee and Jackie Ashley, called for him to be replaced.

Both subsequently rescinded their demand as Brown eased himself into his new role as Chancellor to the world. But today there are signs that this story might have come full circle.

Writing on the expenses scandal, Ashley warns that: “This is the worst … It's almost certainly the end for New Labour, and it's a terrible moment for politics in general.”

And most crucially, predicting attempts at a summer putsch, she suggests that Brown may have to be removed. “Maybe all that adds up to a risk worth taking, to get Ed Miliband or Alan Johnson – in my view the party's best bets – into No 10. Either of these would have some moral authority when it comes to reforming the system,” she writes.

Ashley concedes that Brown has a record “for fighting on even when things look very black” but concludes that “This is his last chance, and he's in a very grim place.”

Meanwhile, the Times’s chief political columnist Peter Riddell, devotes his column to demolishing what some have sardonically described as the “Nuremberg Defence”-the claim by embarrassed MPs that they acted “within the rules”.

“The real test for anyone in public life — journalists as well as politicians — is not merely whether their actions are legal, but whether they can be publicly defended,” he writes.

He warns that MPs caught out will suffer the same consequences as the worst offenders during the dying days of the Major government.

“Those MPs revealed as being greedy may suffer the same fate in the coming general election as those tainted with sleaze did in 1997 when they had above-average swings against them,” he writes.

The Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh prefers to launch a series of staccato blasts against MPs, declaring that Westminster has been turned into “a rats’ nest of skulduggery, deception and petty larceny.”

Elsewhere, perhaps the newly apologetic David Cameron and Gordon Brown took their cue from today’s Telegraph leader which laments that “in recent days it seems not to have occurred to a single MP involved to even consider using the S-word: sorry.”

The paper, which continues the series of revelations begun last Friday, has been accused by Labour MPs of exploiting the scandal for political purposes but it refuses to handle the Tories with kid gloves.

“Any illusion that Tory values would have restrained Conservatives from playing the same game as their Labour opponents has been banished by today's revelations,” the leader observes.

Away from the furore over expenses, columnists are thankfully prepared to explore the major constitutional and foreign policy questions that the political class largely neglects.

Afghanistan

Following a close reading of Philip Bobbitt’s Terror and Consent, the Independent’s Andreas Whittam Smith, one of the founders of the paper, writes that the phrase “war on terror” has acquired a hitherto non-existent relevance for him.

Previously sceptical of the notion that any sort of “war” could be fought against a non-state actor, he notes that Bobbitt neatly evades this obstacle by redefining al-Qaeda as a pseudo-state.

“For al-Qaeda has a standing army. It has a treasury and consistent sources of finance. It has an intelligence collection and analysis cadre. It runs a rudimentary welfare programme for its fighters, their relatives and their associates. It promulgates a recognisable system of laws, the sharia. And it declares wars,” Whittam Smith writes.

On the subject of the battleground itself, Max Hastings, writing in the Financial Times, identifies a coherent strategy towards Pakistan as the lacuna in western policy. The irony of the continued military presence in Afghanistan is that it masks the growing presence of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, he says.

He identifies a settlement over Kashmir as the necessary preliminary to a successful Pakistani counter-insurgency but concedes “it is much easier to identify this reality than to change it.”

Devolution

While at the Times, ten years on from the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, Magnus Linklater examines the balance sheet of devolution. He rejects the claims that devolution would either rouse or destroy nationalism as equally hyperbolic. Instead nothing the irony of a nationalist government in power while “support for independence is down to one of the lowest levels on record.”

Linklater offers a refreshing reminder of the benefits of devolution-it “overturned a democratic deficit that had become destabilizing.”-but fears that increasing support for an English Parliament may yet upset the new constitutional balance.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.