I agree with Nick

No, not Nick Clegg. Nick Cohen. The Lib Dems are finished.

It's not often that I agree with Nick Cohen. There was a time -- pre-9/11? -- that I was a fan of his columns and his arguments. But the Observer columnist has hit the nail on the head in his Spectator cover story this week ("The death of the Lib Dems"):

The Liberals have no right to be surprised. Conservative-minded readers may think that the British liberal-left is good for nothing but, trust me, we are world leaders when it comes to the vituperative art of denouncing sell-outs. The Liberals ought to have known it, because they more than anyone else revelled in deploying the wild language of betrayal against Tony Blair. He had taken Britain to an "illegal" war, they claimed, although no court ever said it was unlawful; he was a "liar" who had knowingly sent British troops to their deaths on a false premise. Now, from Islington to Didsbury, from the BBC to the Guardian, the cry of betrayal the Liberals once directed against Blair is directed against them. The only discernible difference is that it took a decade for Blair to go from being the fresh leader of 1994 to the BLiar of 2004. In the case of Clegg, it is as if someone has thrown compost accelerator over him, speeding up the process of degeneration from hope to has-been from ten years to ten months.

To triple the tuition fees he and every Liberal Democrat pledged to cap and on occasion abolish has destroyed his credibility to an extent I still do not think the Westminster village understands. It's not just that students are furious or that middle-class parents are wondering how their children will manage, but that voters with little time for violent demonstrators have even less time after the expenses scandal for politicians who are 'liars' -- if I may use Liberal Democrat language. He's finished.

I don't disagree. On the surface, the result in Oldham East and Saddleworth might feel to some Lib Dems "like a victory", to quote my colleague George Eaton, considering their share of the vote actually increased by 0.3 per cent since the general election, but the fact is that it wasn't. It was a defeat in a seat in which the Lib Dem candidate had forced the ejection of the sitting Labour MP via judicial means and rejoiced at the prospect of the resulting by-election -- a by-election that the Lib Dems, in their pre-coalition, "party of protest" days, would have won with ease.

Then there is tactical voting. That around one-third of the Lib Dem vote may have come from pro-coalition Tories is irrelevant; the key fact is that the support from the Tories wasn't enough to compensate for the number of defections from the Lib Dems to Labour. Clegg may have declared last year that there is "no future" for the Liberal Democrats as a left-wing alternative to Labour but what's his alternative for his party? What "future" do the Lib Dems have inside the Tory-led cuts coalition? Answer: none. On the evidence of Oldham East and Saddleworth, there doesn't -- yet -- seem to be a new and dynamic coalition of Lib Dem voters.

Since the formation of the coalition last May, I've been asking Lib Dem activists and friends the same question that Jackie Ashley posed in her Guardian column on Monday -- why vote Lib Dem, rather than Labour or Conservative, in 2015?

As Ashley wrote:

If Watkins fails, it will be because people don't know why they should vote Lib Dem. You like what Cameron and Osborne are doing? Vote Tory. You hate it? Vote Labour. The Lib Dems are no longer a protest party or an opposition party; but not quite a party of government, either -- more hostage than partner.

Clegg visibly enjoys government. In his way, as much as Cameron, he has been moulded and educated for power. But unless he manages to give the voters a reason to vote Lib Dem in future, it may not be something he enjoys again.

 

** On a side note, I seem to have nodded in agreement with not just one but two pieces penned by Nick Cohen this week. In his Observer column, Cohen rightly condemned the abuse and misuse of so-called blasphemy laws inside the Muslim world and, in particular, in Pakistan:

It is the most pernicious of attacks on free speech because defendants can never know the nature of their offence. Who is meant to be their victim? Are they meant to have injured the feelings of believers, whose faith is so weak mockery and doubt can threaten it? Perhaps they stand accused of assaulting whatever god or gods the faithful follow. In which case, are the deities in question so feeble and thin-skinned they demand that criticism be punished with human sacrifices?

In November, Freedom House published a report on the abuses of power that follow the endorsement of such a nebulous offence. It documented how Islamic states and religious vigilantes use blasphemy laws to persecute Christians, Ahmadis and Muslims who believe that Muhammad was not the final prophet and, of course, ex-Muslims such as Rushdie who decide to change or renounce their faith, as free men and women should be entitled to do.

In Iran and Egypt, blasphemy is used to prosecute political opponents of the regime. And everywhere the malicious call on it to pursue petty vendettas, as poor Mrs Bibi learned to her cost. Blasphemy is not a protector of religious freedom, as the UN maintains, but its mortal enemy. If free speech is absent, citizens are not free to argue for and practise their beliefs without the fear of state or clerical intimidation.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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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.