The real case against statehood is its sheer ordinariness. Photo: Getty
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Scotland would sell itself short by opting for the banality of independence

Scotland, an outward-looking nation with strong internationalist instincts and a clear sense of its moral purpose in the world, can do better than separation.

The late momentum for the Yes campaign in Scotland should not have surprised anyone. The warning signs had been obvious for months. Faced with largely negative reasons for sticking with the status quo, many Scots have concluded that a Union held together with fear isn’t worth saving. The case for the United Kingdom should have been about much more than this. It should have been framed as a positive affirmation of Scotland’s values and its contribution to the world rather than a statement of brute economic realism.

The outcome now hangs in the balance because the proponents of separatism have successfully tapped into the deep strain of idealism that remains one of the most potent and attractive features of Scottish politics, arguing that social justice and democratic renewal require a break from the fossilised British state. The Yes case certainly has the priceless advantage of novelty, but in every other respect the reasoning behind it is false. Far from being resonant with the demands of the modern age, the idea that you can improve the world by changing its borders is a deeply flawed and regressive one. It reached its zenith with the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and should have been consigned to history with the horrors that followed.

Much of the debate has understandably focussed on whether Scotland could succeed as an independent country. A good rule of thumb in situations like this is that change is never as beneficial as its proponents hope or as disastrous as its opponents claim. An independent Scotland wouldn’t be the social democratic paradise breathlessly described by its supporters, but it would cope and probably cope well enough. The real case against statehood is its sheer ordinariness. We hear regularly from Yes supporters that Scotland should aim to be like other small nations. But is that really the summit of our ambitions as a people; to be like everyone else?

There is no shortage of small countries already in existence – 109 of the UN’s 193 member states have populations of less than ten million. Whatever Scottish voters imagine as they bask in the attentions of the global media, the addition of another one will contribute nothing to the fight against climate change, the promotion of international security, efforts to build a stronger and fairer global economy or the ability of the planet to meet any of the other major challenges it faces. Indeed, separatism is more likely hamper those goals by fragmenting the international community and making consensus more difficult to achieve.

The world doesn’t need another small nation state adding to the babble of the global village while subtracting from its ability to act collectively. What it desperately needs more than ever is functioning examples of multinational democracy that allow nations to come together to share sovereignty, pool resources and solve common problems. The United Kingdom, for all its faults, represents something unique and irreplaceable – a union of nations that has survived and adapted as others have fallen apart in acrimony and conflict. A Scotland that genuinely aspired to make its mark on the world would devote its energies to the democratic renovation and strengthening of that union as an example to be followed. With talk of Devo Max and wider constitutional change across the UK, the referendum has created an opportunity that is there to be seized.

There is no point in pretending that a full commitment to the European Union would compensate for Scotland’s rejection of the Union, because it wouldn’t. As we have seen in the crisis over Ukraine, an EU of twenty-eight member states already finds it difficult enough to operate at a level much above the lowest common denominator. The weakening of a large member state and the addition of another small one (assuming it was granted) could only make matters worse. The answer, of course, is to deepen integration within Europe. But the starting point for that process cannot be to break apart the most stable and successful example of sovereignty sharing between nations that has ever existed. The world needs more unionism at all levels, not less.

David Cameron cannot make this argument because he shares with Alex Salmond the illusion that we can make our own destiny in the world by reclaiming legal sovereignty from some alien authority. In Cameron’s case it is Brussels rather than London, but the substance of his support for renegotiation is identical. It is hardly surprising that nationalists on both sides of the border espouse the same politics of division and resentment even as they find different scapegoats. But why hasn’t the Labour Party and the left generally been more vocal in making the rational, internationalist case for the Union?

The great pity for me is that Robin Cook didn’t live to play a role in the referendum debate. He better than anyone would have been able to puncture the sovereigntist illusions of the Yes campaign without resorting to the slur that Scotland is incapable of governing itself properly. He would have started by explaining that the main problems we face aren’t caused by the loss of sovereignty to Westminster or the EU and can’t therefore be solved by clawing it back. The most intractable challenges are often caused by private networks of wealth, crime and terror that exploit the gaps between competing national sovereignties to evade the rules and manipulate people for their own benefit. So the answer cannot be to Balkanise the world into smaller, weaker units. It must be to strengthen and deepen the bonds of political and economic union that already exist while seeking to extend them to others.

The Scotland I have always felt part of is an outward-looking nation with strong internationalist instincts and a clear sense of its moral purpose in the world. It would be selling itself short if it opted for the banality of independence over the more difficult yet necessary goal of making interdependence work better. I hope for everyone’s sake that it dares to be different.

David Clark is Scottish, and the founder and editor of Shifting Grounds. He served as special adviser to Robin Cook at the Foreign Office from 1997 to 2001. He is chair of the Russia Foundation

David Clark was Robin Cook’s special adviser at the Foreign Office 1997-2001.

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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.