By Benedict Brogan
September 16th, 2013
Nothing illustrates better the anxiety of the British political classes in 2013 than the debate – if that's the word – about the wearing of the veil. The issue has been circling overhead like a flight stuck in a holding pattern over Heathrow, waiting to land. Unrelated events have joined to give the issue critical mass.
The controversy over Birmingham Metropolitan College's prohibition on full facial coverings – only to back down when protests began to get heated – has coincided with a court case involving a woman who demanded her right to appear veiled in the dock, in which the judge ruled first that she couldn't, then agreed that she might pending a further ruling. To those David Cameron added a bit of tinder last week when his office said he would be happy to have the veil banned in his children's schools, but only in the name of a head teacher's right to set uniform policy. Then, in this morning's Telegraph, came the spark, in the form of Jeremy Browne, who said he was uneasy about the whole thing, wondered about the issue of compulsion for young women, and called for a national debate.
The facts are far more complicated of course. For starters, the debate relies on various forms of shorthand: veil is easier to grasp, but Niqab is more accurate. Or take Birmingham Metropolitan: what it really wanted was to bar the wearing of "all hoodies, hats, caps and veils" on its premises to make students more easily identifiable. And in the court case, we should remind ourselves that the prosecution had no objection to the woman appearing veiled, as long as an agreed system of identification was in place.
But none of that detracts from the political issue, which is that a number of politicians, from Jack Straw through Jeremy Browne to Ukip, are all uneasy about what they perceive as a contradiction between their liberal values of individual freedom and identity and a faith that appears by some interpretations to suppress freedom.
Ukip want an outright ban, aligning themselves with the French view, that the veil represents a direct challenge to the secular state. Dr Sarah Wollaston, writing in the Telegraph, wants politicians to stop leaving it to individual institutions and set national guidance. Other Tories might take an even more robust view, as might some Labour MPs. Nick Clegg expressed polite sympathy but quashed the idea of a national ban, limiting it to schools. That I suspect will be Mr Cameron's view, and no doubt Theresa May's. But consider this: we are less than two years from a general election, next spring the Tories face a thrashing from Ukip in the European elections, and among Conservatives the jockeying for life after Dave is well under way. What might Boris say about the matter next time he is asked? Or Michael Gove for that matter? Will ministers find a way of defending religious liberty and the integrity of the courts and the rights of schools? We will get a ruling later on the Blackfriars Crown Court case. How will ministers respond if, the judge decides it is lawful to wear a Niqab in the dock? Will they suggest that rape victims and children might be afforded the same privileges for example? The longer you scrutinise the issue, the more you find reasons why ministers might be tempted to tiptoe around it rather than confront it head on.