THE fall out from Boris Johnson’s column on burkas has been raging for a week now with no sign of abating.
Indeed, the accusations being levelled at the former foreign secretary have become ever more hysterical. One columnist has just accused him of being more incendiary and more damaging than was Enoch Powell in his notorious Rivers of Blood speech. A former senior adviser to David Cameron has labelled him a fascist and a racist.
These accusations are not merely miles over the top, but in my view they signal a disastrous turn for our democracy and are the most grievous example yet of what the political writer David Goodhart has labelled “liberal overreach” – that is to say a readiness among powerful liberals to delegitimise any public objections to notions that are held only by a liberal-minded minority of the public.
What sets this case apart is that Boris Johnson actually was setting out a liberal personal credo about the wearing of full-face coverings in public places. But even that is not enough. The over-reaching liberals of media and politics now demand that not only must a liberal credo be set out, but it must be the correct liberal credo. Reaching a common conclusion is not enough. The authorised route to reaching it must also be followed in every regard.
Now, I write as someone who has long believed that full face coverings ought to be banned in public places, aside from in those rare instances when they are required for reasons of health and safety. I believe that social integration in diverse societies does not happen by magic and must be worked at. I believe that in share public spaces we cannot have total control as to how we dress and that showing one’s face is a perfectly reasonable demand that should embrace everyone from youths inclined to pull hoodies over baseball caps, to motorcyclists once they have dismounted and, yes, women who wear full coverings for cultural reasons. So I am part of the more than 50 per cent of the British public who, in the eyes of the liberal commentariat, are so far beyond the pale as to be much better kept out of political discourse altogether.
And when Boris Johnson wrote his original column for the Telegraph I daresay it was people like me whose minds he was seeking to change. Polling shows two-thirds of Tory voters support a ban on full face coverings, with the proportion even higher for UKIP voters. Telegraph readers possibly tend to be at the more authoritarian and traditionalist end of the Tory voting spectrum, so it would be reasonable to assume that an even higher proportion of them would be inclined to support such a ban.
So Boris Johnson, who does not support a ban, set out to convince them otherwise, using as a peg Denmark’s decision to join other mainstream democracies such as France and Belgium in imposing one.
In order to try and win over the sceptical readers to his liberal position, it seems to me that Boris used a well-worn columnist technique of first empathising with the readers in order to get a hearing for his dissenting view. So he made it clear that he neither liked nor approved of full face coverings. Indeed, he branded them as frankly ridiculous – making women look like letter boxes or bank robbers. (He might just as easily have relied on Polly Toynbee’s rather more insulting comparison of something grotesque from the Scream horror movie series).
But having placed himself alongside the majority of his readers in thinking full-face coverings ridiculous, he then argued that they should not be banned because to institute such a ban would be an unreasonable restriction on personal liberty. In his energetic and inventive way, Boris was defending the status quo from majority criticism. He perhaps hoped to render his audience inclined to think “I don’t like it, but I see I must live with it”.
Yet the orthodox ultra-liberals – the Danconas and Coopers – have decreed even this to be bigoted beyond measure. Not only must anyone who seeks to operate within “respectable” politics in Britain be vehemently opposed to the burka-ban instituted by several other liberal democracies and supported by most Britons, but they must also never even say that burkas and other full-face coverings are unwelcome or look silly.
Now, I would not be alone in thinking that a very great deal of the criticism Boris Johnson has received is motivated by people who will never forgive him for leading the official Leave campaign to victory over David Cameron’s Remain campaign in 2016, thereby foreshortening several careers and causing various commentators to have to wipe copious quantities of egg from their faces.
But the impact of their behaviour is nonetheless deeply damaging. Muslim political leaders have been encouraged once more to adopt victim status (not that some of them need any great encouragement in that regard) rather than to engage with legitimate concerns. Meanwhile, millions of citizens have had their prejudice against the political process reinforced – seeing it as taking place in a politically correct bubble that has precious little to do with their own lives.
Meanwhile, the leaderships of all major parties have de facto been signed up to the argument that not only must burka-wearing be tolerated by British politics, but it must be tolerated without criticism or ridicule or any other variety of adverse comment. Such a contention would, I suggest, be supported by a very small proportion of voters indeed. As the voice on the London Underground tannoy exclaims: Mind the gap.