Get ready for another 12 months of disappointment, Scotland

This time next year we’ll know which campaign Scots disliked the least.

With a year to go until the referendum, it’s safe to say most Scots remain disengaged from the debate about their constitutional future. And who could blame them? Neither the nationalists nor the unionists have produced a campaign capable of capturing the public’s attention.

The SNP, given the opportunity to permanently alter the terms and conditions of Scottish politics, has chosen instead to try and triangulate its way to victory. Its manoeuvres on NATO, the currency, the monarchy, the regulation of financial services and corporation tax reveal a party (or rather a party leadership) lacking in ideological ambition. How much of the UK’s dysfunctional political model do Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon want to impose on an independent Scotland?

When it launched last summer, Yes Scotland had the chance to build a grassroots movement based on the idea that far-reaching constitutional change was a necessary first step towards far-reaching social change. So far, however, it has simply followed the SNP’s lead. At its most radical, Yes Scotland sells independence as a way of mitigating the worst effects of the Westminster consensus, not of actually breaking with it.

The task of building an alternative vision of independence has fallen to smaller, left-leaning organisations such as the Jimmy Reid Foundation – with its hugely successful Common Weal initiative – the Radical Independence Convention and National Collective. Without these groups, the Yes campaign would lack vitality. Their contributions will be pivotal over the coming months.

Better Together, meanwhile, has done exactly what it set out to do - and with great efficiency. Furiously exaggerating the economic pitfalls of independence, undermining trust in the Scottish government, flooding the debate with distracting and trivial arguments – the No camp has adopted a scorched earth approach to the referendum, laying waste to everything in its path, including its own intellectual credibility.

Three scare stories in particular stand out. The first is the late Lord Carmyllie’s suggestion, back in March 2012, that England would be forced to bomb the airports of an independent Scotland if it ever came under attack. The second is the claim that an independent Scotland wouldn’t be guaranteed a triple-A credit rating – something Britain itself was stripped of in January. And the third (a hands-down winner) is the MoD’s warning that Faslane nuclear base might remain “sovereign UK territory” after independence.  

During the early stages of the campaign, the relentless questioning of the SNP by Alistair Darling and others worked to expose the weakness of the nationalists’ case. Now it serves only to remind people of how empty the unionist one is. Better Together’s rampant, unsophisticated unionism needs to be balanced by a compelling account of how Scotland will benefit, socially and economically, from continued membership of the UK. It remains to be seen whether any such account exists.

The polls have been pretty consistent. According to the latest survey, the Yes campaign is trailing by 17 points and support for independence is struggling to edge above the 35 per cent mark. However, nationalists can take comfort from the fact that a large number of voters – as much as 45 per cent of the electorate, in fact – remain undecided. What’s more, the desire for a more powerful Scottish Parliament could translate into support for secession if the unionists fail to produce a coherent blueprint for the next phase of devolution.

We should, at any rate, expect the polls to narrow as the referendum approaches. The SNP is a formidable, well-resourced campaigning machine, while the energy and enthusiasm of the activists on the Yes side far outstrips that of their unionist counterparts. Moreover, it has happened before. Contrary to Nate Silver’s recent assertion, it was the Canadian federalists, not the Quebecois separatists, who squandered a double-digit advantage during the closing weeks of the 1995 referendum on Quebec’s independence from Canada. It’s not hard to imagine a similar scenario emerging in Scotland next year.

On the other hand, things could go badly wrong for the SNP if its White Paper, due out in November, doesn’t live up to the hype. Salmond has said he wants it to “resonate down through the ages”, so the pressure is on. Better Together is gearing up for a massive assault on the document, which it hopes will fatally undermine the nationalist campaign as it heads into 2014. The media’s response will be important. If journalists feel the White Paper has succeeded in answering some of the more problematic questions surrounding independence, people will think it has passed the test. If not, the SNP will find it difficult to recover.

The last 12 months have not been very edifying. The SNP and Yes Scotland have pursued their continuity narrative promising that a future independent Scotland will replicate the current unionist one in almost every way. Better Together and the pro-UK parties have pursued their wrecking ball strategy aimed at demolishing the idea that independence will be seamless and pain free. This time next year we’ll know which of the two campaigns Scots disliked the least.

Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond with Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during a visit to the North Edinburgh Childcare Centre to mark one year to go until the Scottish independence referendum. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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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.