Alex Salmond delivers his speech to delegates at the SNP's spring conference on April 12, 2014 in Aberdeen. Photograph: Getty Images.
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To challenge nationalism, liberals must be bolder about what they can achieve

Progressive parties should use the opportunity of the economic recovery to suggest that politics can lift its sights. 

Returning to London last week after a trip to Glasgow to see family, I had the words of Alex Salmond ringing in my ears. Speaking as the European election results were coming in, he remarked: "I’m not going to spend the next few months or years talking about the difference between good Romanians and bad Romanians." This is what he is able to offer the Scots, an opportunity to talk about something else, while they watch us in the south squabble about immigration and Europe.

Though I’m Glasgow-born and studied law in the city, I’m no nationalist. Yet I have seen some of the best minds of my generation resuscitated by the SNP. While the UK was tumbling into one war after another, the SNP spoke to people who were uncomfortable about the implications of those wars. Now with the referendum on independence just a few months away, Salmond and his colleagues are describing an imaginarium of freedom and prosperity. I’m pretty sceptical about their claims - for example, I find the Treasury's analysis on the cost of independence more persuasive than the Scottish government's paper on the "independence dividend" - but the idea that an independent Scotland might become a progressive beacon to the rest of the UK became more plausible on Sunday night every time another English region reported its votes.

Then at 3am, something happened. London declared. We’re alright Scotland, said the capital, stick with us. Perhaps we hatch a plan to speed up the building of HS2 and then we can all secede together, the liberal metropoles with the progressive north.

But this is likely to be fantasy. This is a small enough country as it is, with a declining proportion of world GDP. Splitting it up into parts is unlikely to work, though the direction of travel in policy towards stronger city-regions and "devolution max" for Scotland potentially provides all the same benefits over time without constitutional and economic ruptures.

Meanwhile, the urgent question for English politics – with a feedback effect in pre-referendum Scottish politics – is whether the liberal imagination is up to the job of confronting right-wing populism and, just as importantly, the views and attitudes that it speaks to. Talking about racism is important. Frankly, and for the most part irrationally, I’ll be thinking about the fact that almost four million fellow citizens voted for Ukip the next time I travel outside a major city. I don’t believe that most of them are racist but I’d prefer to know for certain and, if they are, then I’d like to persuade them to reconsider their views. Progressives have fought and won other battles on rights and recognition in the past two decades, going all the way back to the introduction of the Human Rights Act in 1998 through changes in the law to recognise the acquired gender of transsexual people and more recently gay marriage. It looks like we have to restart a discussion about race.

On immigration, on the other hand, all the major parties have been talking about it without stop and they are in a tough stance already. Yet the likelihood is that they now try out initiatives that are damaging to the economy and the prospects for integration of immigrants. But the economic risk in particular will be difficult to illustrate over the next year as GDP growth out-performs many of the forecasts. Writing in the Times last week, John Hutton and Alan Milburn suggested that limiting immigration will lead to a 3 per cent drop in GDP per capita by 2060. That’s not a compelling argument right now. The same appeal to narrow economic margins undermines the Better Together campaign. Yes, Scotland may benefit by £1,000 per person per year by being in the Union but when GDP per person is more than £25,000 per year then this can seem slight.

The better approach to winning over voters – and those people who didn’t vote at all last week – will be to use the opportunity of the recovery – the change in mood as well as the uptick in investment – to suggest that politics can lift its sights. It is to follow Salmond in talking about something other than the difference between good Romanians and bad Romanians.

For him this will be creating a sovereign wealth fund from oil revenues to invest in the future, attracting entrepreneurs to Scotland and revitalising public services. Can UK politicians make visions too? They could match the idea of a sovereign wealth fund and raise it, by committing future shale gas revenue on top of the oil money. If we’re taking assets out of the ground, let’s use them to make new ones in their place. Could we use half of the money to create a fund that pays for nature reserves and the other half is a start on the largest education endowment in the world?

Scotland is rightly proud of its science and research base. In truth, the links between scientific institutions north and south of the border are pretty deep. So let’s be positive about this part of our public realm too. Other things being equal, it’s still possible for the government to run a small budget surplus by the end of the next Parliament even after it has doubled the science budget. Earlier I wrote flippantly that we could speed up the building of HS2. Perhaps that isn’t feasible. But it would be quite a signal if we started building the northern end at the same time as the southern one. And presumably, as a rich country with cheap debt, we can invest in more than one grand project at any one time. I don’t know what the next one should be but could we start a competition to decide?

This might not be the right set of policies but the underlying point is simply this: if liberal politics – the idea that freedom and progress are possible and desirable – is to prevail over the next year, first in the Scottish referendum and following that in the general election, then it has to give some powerful examples of what it can achieve. Mere talk about "reconnecting" with the electorate or sub-poetic speeches about why together is better will not be enough.

Emran Mian is director of the Social Market Foundation

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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.