Shots fired in Edinburgh: Many writers and artists who once supported Labour, have abandoned it. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Artists for independence, reading Wilfred Owen and the return of Ian Nairn

Remembering the angst of Scottish writers, a schoolboy's introduction to the poetry of Wilfred Owen, and the eccentric, melancholy genius of the topographer and broadcaster Ian Nairn.

In the early Nineties I was commissioned by a magazine to write a long report on what was being described as the renaissance in Scottish literature and publishing. I found a room in a hotel in Charlotte Square – from my window I could see the front door of Bute House, now the First Minister’s official residence – and spent four or five days wandering around Edinburgh, a would-be flâneur with an expense account.

My visit coincided with an unexpected heatwave and, beguiled by the weather, I thought for those few days at least that there was no better city in which to live in Europe. I was also struck by how few people I spoke to had any sense of a British identity. They were proudly, even militantly, Scottish. OK, most of them were young writers and artists but still their self-identity had been formed in opposition to England and to a Tory government for which none of them had voted and whose policies they despised. It was obvious to me that, given the chance, these people would vote for independence and that a referendum on the issue was inevitable, if not imminent.

A few years later, Blair’s 1997 landslide obliterated the Tories in Scotland (they won none of the 72 seats). The Conservative and Unionist Party had dumped the poll tax on Scotland a year before its introduction in England and myopically opposed devolution. It was a defeat from which there would be no return. Nowadays, Labour is also struggling for credibility in Scotland. The Scottish Labour Party has a likeable but hapless leader and a party machine that has been diminished by the flight of talent south and corrupted by decades of complacency. Many writers, artists and academics who once supported Labour have abandoned it. They are not natural SNP supporters but they will vote Yes in September.

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I spent last week high in the French Alps, where, despite many weeks of unseasonal warmth, the snow fell thickly on the day of our arrival and continued all through the night – the first snowfall I’d seen all winter. We awoke to a windless morning, fresh snow and brilliant sunshine, such a welcome respite from the storms and incessant rain of recent weeks. I returned from France to find an astronaut on the cover of the New Statesman and inside a fine review of Guy Cuthbertson’s biography of Wilfred Owen by Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, who has joined us as a lead book reviewer.

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I can never forget my introduction to Owen’s poetry. One morning the school headmaster strode out before us at the start of assembly and, without introduction, read “Dulce et Decorum Est”, which I later discovered was one of the most celebrated anti-war protest poems. The headmaster was a short, aggressive, bullet-headed man – my father told me he was a communist who had fought in the Spanish civil war (this seems unlikely, in retrospect, though there was a finger missing from his left hand). Now, he was in late career and his idealism had curdled into disaffection. He seemed to hate the school and the children in it. Yet that morning he read Owen’s poem with an emotion I’d never seen from him before. A couple of days later I pulled down from my father’s shelves an anthology of First World War poets – Owen, Sassoon, Gurney, Blunden and others. I was on my way to becoming a reader.

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Towards the end of last year, Matthew Engel published a fascinating essay in the Fin­ancial Times about Ian Nairn, the eccentric and melancholy architectural commentator who became an unlikely TV personality in the early Seventies as he toured the country in his convertible Morris Minor. Dressed in a funereal suit and white shirt, overweight, his receding hair slicked back from a pale, pudgy face, Nairn, who had been a pilot, told the viewers in vivid and uncomplicated language which buildings and towns he liked and disliked and why.

He was often outraged. He was a passion­ate hater and denounced the carelessness and brutality of so much postwar architecture and town planning – “subtopia” was his coinage, a neologism he used to characterise the suburban sprawl he saw stretching all the way from Southampton to Carlisle. At times he seemed to be close to tears – one wag remarked on his edge-of-suicide delivery – never more so than when lamenting the impending destruction of the Emporium Arcade (1901-72) in Northampton. The wrecking balls had done their work even before the programme was broadcast.

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I knew of Nairn’s influence on a generation of psychogeographers and gonzo urbanists but had never seen any of his programmes or read any of his mostly forgotten books. I was still at school in 1983 when he died, aged 52; burdened, it seemed, by some unnameable sorrow, he drank himself to death.

However, since reading Engel’s piece I’ve been watching clips of Nairn on YouTube. I love his conversational style, as if he’s speaking to friends in the pub, his resonant voice, authoritative but not plummy, wavering with regret. And last week – the joy of it – there was an hour-long documentary about him by Kate Misrahi on BBC4. 

It was the model of a kind of documentary the BBC once excelled at before it became fixated on celebrity. It had a narrator but no presenter and featured thoughtful, well-edited contributions from those who had known and worked with Nairn or admired his originality. Now, surely, some enterprising publisher should reissue his out-of-print but much-in-demand book Nairn’s London. I’d buy it. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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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.