The idea of cultural wars is as alien to the British nation as the word Kulturkampf is to the English language. In America, of course, such conflict is routine, as parties clash over issues like gay marriage, abortion and affirmative action. But Britain has never had much time for such confrontation. From time to time, specific loyalties divide the country — Charles or Diana, Thatcher or Kinnock, Mods or Rockers, Roundhead or Cavalier — but never before a clash of civilisations. Yet many in Westminster believe that culture wars are about to become an integral part of our politics.
Jack Straw, the minister who started the present row about the Muslim veil, flatly denies accusations of bravery. When he raised the issue, he claimed he was simply repeating a point he’d made in several speeches. This is, after all, the man who as foreign secretary was accused of bending British foreign policy to appease his Muslim constituents. Yet whether by accident or design, he has struck oil. Instead of being pilloried for making such remarks, his approval ratings have rocketed.
It has been embarrassing to watch ministers pile in behind him. Peter Hain declared British Airways to be ‘loopy’ for suspending a female employee who wore the cross. Phil Woolas, the race relations minister, called for the dismissal of the Dewsbury teaching assistant who refused to remove her veil when teaching at a Church of England school. John Prescott declared himself pro-veil and Gordon Brown vaguely declared himself pro-Straw. On Tuesday Tony Blair solemnly proclaimed the veil a ‘mark of separation’.
Yet all this has been the political equivalent of shouting at the television. There is no policy at stake here, nor any question of banning the niqab in Britain. So it is next to irrelevant what ministers think of it. Instead, the veil debate is serving as a catharsis for Labour, allowing ministers to renounce the pro-diversity agenda which the party relentlessly pursued for decades. They do not have quite the right vocabulary, and certainly not a coherent strategy. But Labour has realised its error and is now back-pedalling. The party which fathered multiculturalism suddenly wants to pose as its executioner.
This is natural Conservative territory, which is partly why David Cameron is so wary. Tough rhetoric about Muslim practices is potentially toxic to his project to transform the Tory party’s image, and his first instinct was to say nothing. He has instead let David Davis do the talking, and last weekend approved a Sunday Telegraph article in which the shadow home secretary warned that Muslims risk ‘apartheid’ unless they integrate more. While it had the desired effect, catching up with Labour, the subject itself remains deeply uncomfortable territory for Tory modernisers. Oliver Letwin spoke from the heart when he warned that telling people how to dress would be a ‘dangerous doctrine’.
Having been warned relentlessly since Mr Cameron became leader to say nothing off-message, Tory MPs are reluctantly keeping quiet about an issue which has been of great significance to many of them for years. ‘I admit this has come at a bad time for us, because we’re still trying to show that we have changed,’ one Cameroon told me. ‘Labour will take first-mover advantage on this, and we will have to let them. Most of us would like to be saying what Straw is saying, but it doesn’t fit the overall narrative, and loyal people who want him [Cameron] to do well are relaxed about it.’
As it happens, the Tory leader himself has tentatively broken with his own strategy — but almost no one noticed. In an address to Hindus on Tuesday night, he attacked multiculturalism as ‘state-sanctioned division’ and said it had to end. While intended to be a principled intervention in the debate, his remarks did not make the headlines. Making a tub-thumping speech is not Mr Cameron’s forte. It is, after all, hard to come across as an outraged English patriot in a speech that starts with ‘Namaste’ and ends ‘as we prepare for Diwali, let’s go forward as a happy and united people’.
What has surprised both parties is the speed with which the acceptable boundaries of debate are shifting. Just two years ago Mr Davis would have been pilloried for his remarks, and Mr Straw might have lost his seat had he made the veil observation before the 2005 election. Michael Howard’s campaign slogan last year — ‘It’s not racist to talk about immigration’ — led to accusations that the party was blowing the so-called ‘dog whistle’ and appealing to racist sentiment while claiming to do the opposite. Now, such a slogan would be seen as platitudinous. It is as if Westminster has suddenly realised the gap between the concerns of voters and the language of the political elite.
Normally Labour quickly closes such gaps. But Tony Blair has several problems. First is that his authority has now collapsed, as we saw when the head of the British army scorned the government’s Iraq strategy. Next, many in the Labour party fear that the Prime Minister has given up trying to drive a wedge between extremists and moderate Islam, and is instead extending the net of blame to peaceful Muslims.
But the biggest problem, which Gordon Brown would inherit, is that the multicultural scripture is not his to tear up. It is kept in the tabernacle of local government, and real power on this matter rests in places like Lancashire Council, which denounced Mr Straw’s comments on the veil as ‘unfortunate’, ‘unwise’ and ‘ill-advised’. The ‘pro-diversity’ agenda has been stitched into every level of government since Labour came to power nine years ago, and it cannot easily be unpicked now.
This may not matter. Culture war is all about backing a cause, not necessarily acting upon it. President George W. Bush had no hope of amending the American constitution to outlaw gay marriage, but championed what he saw as a popular position in the hope of winning political capital. So in Westminster an inane debate about veils may be the first stirrings of a political battle against fundamentalist Islam — which has, for years, been waging its own one-sided culture war against Britain. All politicians are in the very first stages of a debate which many of them have spent their careers avoiding. There is much time to catch up on, and much dust to brush off. A subject closed down by Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech in 1968 has finally been reopened.