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
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.