Alex Salmond addresses a Business for Scotland event on February 17, 2014 in Aberdeen, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The SNP should stop playing it safe on independence

The more radical the Yes campaign’s message becomes, the more likely it is to triumph in September. 

Nineteen years ago, Michael Forsyth said the creation of an Edinburgh parliament with tax-raising powers would lead to a "jobs holocaust" in Scotland. It was a classic piece of Tory hyperbole. In the run up to the 1997 referendum, the Conservative Party used every scare tactic, no matter how ridiculous, to push for a No vote. At one stage, Michael Ancram, its constitutional affairs spokesman, even appeared to compare devolution to fascism: "Like Churchill before the last war, we see the terrible dangers ahead and we give warning".

The Tories weren’t alone in issuing silly threats against home rule. Sir Alastair Grant, of Scottish and Newcastle breweries, argued that anything other than a fiscally toothless parliament would make the Scottish economy "significantly uncompetitive", while CBI Scotland howled about the dangers of "tartan taxes". Indeed, Scottish business as a whole seemed hostile to change. Not long before the vote, a poll for the Scotland on Sunday suggested 76 per cent of Scottish companies opposed devolution.

What was it Marx said about history, tragedy and farce? One month ago, Ben van Beurden, the chief executive of oil giant Shell, told his shareholders that he "valued the continuity and stability of the UK" and therefore wanted Scotland to remain in the Union. Van Beurden’s remarks came just a week or so after BP boss Bob Dudley said he thought "Great Britain should stay great", and only a few days after Standard Life and RBS revealed plans to move south if Scotland loses the pound after a Yes vote. Since then, Alliance Trust, Barclays and Aggreko have made similar noises.

To some extent, these interventions do little more than confirm a general – and fairly obvious – rule: business doesn’t like uncertainty. British companies are almost as uneasy about the prospect of the UK leaving the EU as they seem to be about Scotland leaving the UK. In 2013, the British Chambers of Commerce polled nearly 4,000 firms and found that more than 60 per cent of them wanted the UK to stay part of Europe (albeit with a renegotiated settlement). Ford, Renault and Unilever have all said they intend to scale back their British operations following any rupture with Brussels. This isn’t a comment on the merits of the European project. It’s simply a reaction to the threat of disruption.

However, the interventions also tell us something specific about nationalist strategy. The SNP’s "prawn cocktail offensive" – its ongoing attempt, since the early noughties, to persuade Scottish business figures that they have nothing to fear from the party or its overarching goal – isn’t working. For the last decade, the SNP has gone out of its way to coddle and reassure Scottish capital. It has promised to maintain the current system of UK-wide financial regulation. It has aggressively pursued a currency union. It has opposed a financial transactions tax at the European level. It has courted zero-hours employers such as Amazon. Bafflingly, it has even pledged to undercut the UK corporate tax rate by 3 per cent. And yet Scottish business (most of it anyway) remains pretty much wedded to the British state.

I expect the SNP’s efforts to "de-risk" independence to unravel further as the referendum approaches. Despite one unnamed UK minister raising the prospect of a deal over monetary union, Alex Salmond will struggle to hold the line on the currency for another five months. At some stage, he will have to lay out some sort of back-up plan in the event post-Yes talks fail to secure a formal "sterling zone" agreement. (The Fiscal Commission is already taking a "second look" at the alternatives.) Nor can the SNP go on blithely asserting that an independent Scotland will assume its EU membership under precisely the same conditions it enjoys as part of the UK.  Those conditions will be up for negotiation after a Yes vote.

But here’s the interesting thing: there’s no reason to believe any of this is going to damage the Yes campaign. Since the start of the year, Better Together has thrown everything at the nationalists, from Osborne’s belligerent currency rhetoric to repeated threats of capital flight to umpteen apocalyptic predictions about shipyard closures – and support for independence has steadily increased. My guess is that this trend is due to growing numbers of low-income Scots shifting from No and Undecided to Yes. These voters don’t benefit from the status quo. They don’t want to hear that an independent Scotland will look exactly the same as the current, unionist one. The more radical the Yes campaign’s message becomes, the more likely they are to turn out in force on 18 September. With the momentum shifting slowly but surely in favour of Yes, the SNP and its allies have no excuse for playing it safe anymore.

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.