How to interpret the UK "ban minarets" poll

Read this before you open tomorrow's newspapers

According to a new survey published by Angus Reid Public Opinion today, "Britain would vote to ban minarets" if the Swiss referendum were repeated here. This contrasts with the United States, where the vote would be evenly split, and Canada, where the proposal would be rejected.

You can find the full results of the three-country polling here -- and I would advise you to do so, particularly if this survey is picked up as a news story in tomorrow's papers. For, if they present the results as I have done above (merely repeating the way Angus Reid has done in its missive), the effect will be to focus on their most negative interpretation -- not to mention the unwelcome suggestion that we in the UK are more illiberal than Americans. (Canadians we can just about get: but the people who elected Dubya? More Islamophile than us?)

I would be the last to pretend that many British people do not have a very real problem with Islam, and that includes many left-liberals, secularists and feminists whose opposition is principled, if, in my opinion, wrong. Actually calling for minarets to be banned, however, is to step beyond principle and full square into the territory of prejudice.

So I am relieved to report that there is a much more hopeful interpretation to be put on the survey's findings.

Firstly, a majority of respondents in all three countries agreed, either "strongly" or "moderately" with the proponents of the ban. But in each case this majority was under 50 per cent (44 per cent in Britain, 37 per cent in Canada and only 30 per cent in the USA). Secondly, although majorities in Britain and the USA would vote "yes" in a referendum on a ban, these too were not absolute majorities -- 37 per cent in the UK, and a mere 21 per cent in America.

True, these figures are larger than those who would vote against (UK: 25 per cent; USA : 19 per cent). But the real story for me in this survey is that, faced with this questionnaire, majorities in all three countries refused to say "yes" when asked if they would vote in favour of a ban.

Forgive me if that sounds a little convoluted (I've had to use a double negative because I can't formally say majorities actually oppose the ban). What the survey showed was that vast numbers of people either wouldn't vote or weren't sure -- around 40 per cent in Britain and Canada and over 60 per cent in the USA.

I find that a great cause for cheer, because it makes clear that, when asked to come to a closed-minded, prejudiced judgement on whether members of one of the world's major religions should be allowed to erect thin, elegant structures to adorn their places of worship -- this is all minarets are -- majorities in all three countries will not do so. They will either oppose such a ruling, or not feel strongly about it, or they will think about it.

During a referendum you have time to explain your case. Given that I think the argument against a ban has common sense, decency and toleration on its side, after reading this survey I feel confident that victory would go to those who would oppose a ban.

And that, I think, is the real message from this poll.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Getty
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The science and technology committee debacle shows how we're failing women in tech

It would be funny if it wasn’t so depressing.

Five days after Theresa May announced, in her first Prime Minister’s Questions after the summer recess, that she was "particularly keen to address the stereotype about women in engineering", an all-male parliamentary science and technology committee was announced. You would laugh if it wasn’t all so depressing.

It was only later, after a fierce backlash against the selection, that Conservative MP Vicky Ford was also appointed to the committee. I don’t need to say that having only one female voice represents more than an oversight: it’s simply unacceptable. And as if to rub salt into the wound, at the time of writing, Ford has still not been added to the committee list on parliament's website.

To the credit of Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat MP who was elected chair of the committee in July, he said that he didn't "see how we can proceed without women". "It sends out a dreadful message at a time when we need to convince far more girls to pursue Stem [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] subjects," he added. But as many people have pointed out already, it’s the parties who nominate members, and that’s partly why this scenario is worrying. The nominations are a representation of those who represent us.

Government policy has so far completely failed to tap into the huge pool of talented women we have in this country – and there are still not enough women in parliament overall.

Women cannot be considered an afterthought, and in the case of the science and technology committee they have quite clearly been treated as such. While Ford will be a loud and clear voice on the committee, one person alone can’t address the major failings of government policy in improving conditions for women in science and technology.

Study after study has shown why it is essential for the UK economy that women participate in the labour force. And in Stem, where there is undeniably a strong anti-female bias and yet a high demand for people with specialist skills, it is even more pressing.

According to data from the Women’s Engineering Society, 16 per cent of UK Stem undergraduates are female. That statistic illustrates two things. First, that there is clearly a huge problem that begins early in the lives of British women, and that this leads to woefully low female representation on Stem university courses. Secondly, unless our society dramatically changes the way it thinks about women and Stem, and thereby encourages girls to pursue these subjects and careers, we have no hope of addressing the massive shortage in graduates with technical skills.

It’s quite ironic that the Commons science and technology committee recently published a report stating that the digital skills gap was costing the UK economy £63bn a year in lost GDP.

Read more: Why does the science and technology committee have no women – and a climate sceptic?

Female representation in Stem industries wasn’t addressed at all in the government’s Brexit position paper on science, nor was it dealt with in any real depth in the digital strategy paper released in April. In fact, in the 16-page Brexit position paper, the words "women", "female" and "diversity" did not appear once. And now, with the appointment of the nearly all-male committee, it isn't hard to see why.

Many social issues still affect women, not only in Stem industries but in the workplace more broadly. From the difficulties facing mothers returning to work after having children, to the systemic pay inequality that women face across most sectors, it is clear that there is still a vast amount of work to be done by this government.

The committee does not represent the scientific community in the UK, and is fundamentally lacking in the diversity of thought and experience necessary to effectively scrutinise government policy. It leads you to wonder which century we’re living in. Quite simply, this represents a total failure of democracy.

Pip Wilson is a tech entrepreneur, angel investor and CEO of amicable