All sides are anxious about this Budget

"In this country we have to look upon budget promises as made of the same stuff as lover's oaths." So said Lord Salisbury, three times Conservative PM, and his words are perhaps more apt than ever given that all the love drained out of the coalition's marriage some time ago. We need to sift carefully before being sure about what today really means.

As with all Budgets we should start this process by asking what impact it will have on the overall economy, who wins and loses, and what it will mean for the political strategies of different parties.

In terms of macroeconomics this budget was always going to be a non-event. It is broadly fiscally neutral, with only very minor upward ticks to growth forecasts. None of this is a surprise: this chancellor was always going to ignore those calling for more stimulus. This Budget, like all the others this Parliament, lives in the shadow of the choices made in the emergency Budget in June 2010 and subsequent spending review.

When it comes to the distributional effects, today will leave a mark, though in many ways a smaller one than other recent budgets. Politics between now and the Sunday papers will be all about trying to establish the narrative that sticks about who has won and lost.

Osborne's central claim is that the "bulk" of support on offer will go to low to middle income Britain. Yet it's very clear that 70 per cent of the gains from the hike in personal allowances - the key Budget measure - goes to the top half of the income distribution. The choice he made was to spread a small tax cut thinly to all individuals earning from £8,000 to over £100,000 - though it should be pointed out that, against expectations, the majority of the gains will be restricted to basic rate tax payers. And it's true that the increase in allowances is a less regressive way of cutting taxes than others. But that doesn't make it a good use of limited resources - it could have been better spent reversing the impending swinging cuts to tax credits for low-income working families.

Perhaps the best that can be said is that, unlike its predecessors, in this budget there has been no further assault on low income working families (though Osborne did put down a clear marker for a further £10bn of welfare cuts by 2016, which will make the 2014 spending review a complete quagmire for the Lib Dems) in order to pay for a thinly spread giveaway which disproportionately benefits better off households.

The party politics that result from today are hard to call. It's clear that all sides can claim some grounds for feeling upbeat about what the Budget will mean for them in the short term; yet in private each concedes that it is likely to expose an underlying vulnerability. The Lib Dems made the first move in the budget negotiations and will strongly assert the move to a personal allowance of over £9,000 surpasses expectations, vindicates their open source negotiating strategy, and demonstrates they are achieving results in government. The tax avoidance measures and hike in high end Stamp Duty will help placate their activists even if they remain grumpy about the cheapness with which Clegg conceded the 50p rate.

It certainly is good news for the Lib Dems that in raising the personal allowances they have alighted upon a popular flagship policy that Osborne feels the need to back. The bad news is that it appears to be a policy that isn't doing them any good electorally, which in part reflects the fact that very few voters seem to realise it belongs to them (a view borne out in focus groups). For all Clegg's persistence in talking about it, and despite the entire media class thinking it is very clearly his policy, it seems the public has yet to reach the same view. The risk for Clegg is that the budget makes clear that even when he manages to win, he still loses.

For their part Cameron and Osborne will think they have pulled off satisfying the rightwing of their party whilst binding in the Liberal Democrats, and steering Labour onto the ground of protest about unfairness rather than building up its credentials as an alternative government in waiting.

They will be pleased they have reduced the number affected by their Child Benefit horlicks (even if the price of this is horrendous complexity in the tax system) and have killed off calls for a new property tax in this Parliament - though I suspect right now they are starting to think they may have badly misjudged the reaction on pensioner allowances. And by taking the decision to tackle the 50p issue now in mid-term they will feel they've detonated a potentially explosive problem at a safe distance from the general election.

Yet for all their confidence there is no escaping the central fact that the Conservatives have acted very casually in relation to one of their biggest electoral weaknesses. The decision on the 50p tax is a further nail in the coffin of Cameron's original modernising agenda and it comes hot on the heels of the NHS debacle. However loudly they shout about taxing the rich over the next few days it will still be the case that in a few weeks time no one will recall a single anti-avoidance measure but many will remember the tax cut for the rich at a time when spending cuts for the rest are biting.

As well as affecting its constituent parts, the noisy budget process is likely to have implications for how the coalition works. The frantic nature of the briefing made it feel like a pre-election Budget. Let's not forget there are six more budgets and autumn statements this Parliament that need to be agreed. It's hard to see the politics of each getting much easier, or the Lib Dem desire for differentiation subsiding. That said, part of the intensity of the manoeuvring reflects the depths of the concerns among Liberal Democrat strategists about what they see as their dire prospects in the May elections - Clegg's moment of maximum vulnerability this parliament. If the coalition is to maintain a veneer of smooth functioning it will need to learn a more orderly way of disagreeing.

And what of Labour? Having been largely squeezed out of the pre budget debate by the Coalition's internal wranglings, the decision on 50p now provides them with a clear message which will be delivered with real gusto as Ed Miliband showed today in the Commons - and unlike the autumn statement it's not a message that can be caricatured as being about the desire for a larger deficit. But this will only serve for the short term. The big question the public are asking of Labour is not whether they are committed to tackling unfairness. At the start of the new year Labour chose to open a conversation about how they would govern in tough times. It's since been interrupted by the row about the welfare cap, the coalition's woes on the NHS, and then the Budget. Soon Labour will have to recommence that discussion on how they would govern with scant money, and when they do they'll need to be sure about where they really want to take it.

Don't be fooled by the upbeat assessments. All sides are anxious about where this Budget will take them.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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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.