The justification for banning the burqa and the niqab in France surely has nothing to do with the French ‘separation of Church and State’.
The justification for banning the burqa and the niqab in France surely has nothing to do with the French ‘separation of Church and State’. If it is justified — I would rather hesitantly argue that it is — it is solely because the veil hides identity. Common citizenship involves trust, and trust cannot exist where one cannot see people’s faces in public. Obviously there can be necessary functional reasons for concealment — surgical masks, beekeepers’ helmets, extremes of cold — but concealment in normal circumstances in an open society amounts to a hostile act. I have often seen this, in extreme form, on the hunting field, when saboteurs advance on riders and foot-followers wearing masks. Sometimes this prevents convictions for serious assaults because the wearers cannot be identified, but even where no injury is caused the concealment of the face is itself a form of menace. It is now a big feature of anti-cuts protests, where rioters often affect the Palestinian keffiyeh both to glamorise themselves and to conceal their identity. To claim the right to make noisy public statements and the right to hide yourself while you do so is strange indeed.
Not that Muslim women in the veil are necessarily being aggressive or threatening. Recently I went to speak at the Cambridge Muslim College, a small institution with the admirable aim of educating future imams and other teachers in non-theological subjects like British political history and social order. The college is exceptionally go-ahead for the Muslim world in recruiting women as well as men, and they sit in the same room for lectures. I spoke to more than 70 per cent of the student body (eight people) on the subject of coalitions. Two of the three women present were wearing the niqab. They were extremely polite, and asked highly intelligent questions. But if they hoped that their concealment improved the attitude of visiting men, I fear they were mistaken. The effect of their dark eyes scrutinising me was bewitching.
How about an ecumenical compromise over clothing in public? As great an offence to common citizenship as concealment is nudity. It is horrible that men think it all right to walk round the streets and travel on public transport wearing only shorts. Ban the burqa and the naked beer belly.
In all the current argument and litigation about atrocities allegedly carried out by the British during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, no one has quoted the most famous parliamentary assault ever made upon such things. In the early hours of the morning of 28 July 1959, the speaker denounced the failure of the colonial government in Kenya to accept responsibility for the beating to death of 11 prisoners by warders in Hola Camp: ‘Finally, it is argued that this is Africa, that things are different there. Of course they are. The question is whether the difference between things there and here is such that the taking of responsibility there and here should be upon different principles… We cannot say, “We have African standards in Africa, Asian standards in Asia and perhaps British standards here at home.” We have not that choice to make. We must be consistent with ourselves everywhere. All government, all influence of man upon man, rests upon opinion. What we can do in Africa, where we still govern and where we no longer govern, depends upon the opinion which is entertained of the way in which this country acts and the way in which Englishmen act. We cannot, we dare not, in Africa of all places, fall below our own highest standards in the acceptance of responsibility.’ The author of this great assault on colonial abuses was a Conservative MP called Enoch Powell.
Sometimes the obvious is missed even by the splendid elite reporter units of Fleet Street. Two current examples. 1) The NHS reforms have been suspended for a two-month ‘pause’ so that the government can listen more fully to criticisms of the detail. The main reason for this decision at this moment, scarcely mentioned, is that the Liberal Democrats expect a hammering in the May council elections, and so need all the coalition help they can get. 2) There are fewer applications for street parties for this royal wedding than there were for that of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. This is attributed to a lack of public enthusiasm. What about the more basic point that Prince William and Catherine Middleton are marrying in April, whereas Charles and Diana married in July?
‘A poem against the Arts Council cuts by Carol Ann Duffy’, promised the Guardian Books section on its front. It is hard to think of a less tempting headline. A poem in favour of the cuts would be another matter entirely, but one already exists. It was presciently written by Alexander Pope more than 200 years before the Arts Council was invented. It is ‘The Dunciad’, the story of ‘the great empire of Dulness’ in which ‘…pensive poets painful vigils keep,/ Sleepless themselves, to give their readers sleep’.
Earlier this week, I rode my horse in the evening. The view was so clear that I could see the South Downs and sea in one direction and almost to Canterbury in the other. The trees were coming into leaf. The blackthorn looked like frozen smoke. Newborn lambs were gambolling. I was alone with my horse and my thoughts. After we had galloped up a hill and paused at the top, I noticed that I was feeling happy. So I was depressed the next morning to hear that the next Household Survey will ask four questions about happiness and that Lord Layard, the author of optimistic books like The Coming Russian Boom (published two years before the Russian crash of 1998), has launched a charity called Action for Happiness. It is a left-wing heresy to imagine you can prescribe such action. As the day of the Lord, happiness ‘cometh like a thief in the night’ (and departeth with similar furtiveness). It is a target which has only to be aimed at to be missed. It cannot be a policy: it is a blessing.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 16, 2011