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One of the ironies of the burka row generated by former Foreign Secretary and trainee Tory leader Boris Johnson is that he is out of step with public opinion. Johnson was making the case against a burka ban, as introduced in Denmark recently.
The British public has consistently shown that it disagrees with Johnson. Support for a ban has been strong in polling in recent years.
YouGov found last year that 48% back a ban and 42% oppose it. A year before that, the gap was wider, with 57% in favour and 25% opposed. If there is polling anywhere suggesting that this has transformed into support for the burka in recent months, I can’t find it.
And yet, if you believe the echo chamber of social media, Boris has transgressed in some almost unimaginable Hitlerian fashion, saying there should not be a ban but being rude about the burka, and there is a consensus that he must apologise.
I didn’t like his precise choice of words. They’re ill-mannered and hardly statesmanlike or sensitive. But it’s Boris limbering up, trying to get the old Telegraph column muscles working again, aiming for PG Wodehouse and ending up as Tom Sharpe on an off day.
But the essence of his argument remains spot on. One can think that people should be free to wear the burka while regarding the garment as highly problematic because of the signals its sends to others. The burka makes a clear and unwelcome, unfriendly statement. Covering the face says: I will not communicate with you, I am not open to some of the basic elements of interaction required in a civilised society on the street, in shops, in hospitals. What message in particular does that send to the deaf (who often rely on lip reading and observing expressions)? Their feelings rarely get a look in.
On the latest Rapid Reaction podcast – featuring short discussions on a story of the moment – we kicked all this around among the Reaction team. Boris should not apologise, I said, on the basis that demanding apologies is becoming a really irritating media class sport. Yes he should apologise, said the other members of the team.
We also got into the question of the policing of public space, and there found more agreement. The French approach – rooted in codifying behaviour by law, hence the burka ban – seems inferior to the less formal British approach, which while underpinned by law (of course) rests as much on informal codes of behaviour negotiated over time by free individuals and groups sharing public space. Another example of the contrast between the two cultures embodied in the Brexit row perhaps. Of the common law approach versus the civil law system. The best criticism of Boris is that his remarks about letter boxes and bank-robbers were bad mannered.
What is most striking, really astonishing, about this episode though is watching the overheated dwellers of a liberal bubble repeat the mistakes made across the Atlantic in 2016 in relation to Trump. He in his terrible way said what he thought and refused to play the mainstream game of gaffe diagnosed by hysterical media and death by craven apology. The attacks and demands that Trump resign from the human race only helped him.
Incidentally, if you seek a really good hate, really want to get it all out, there is a group in Britain you can call whatever names you like – scum, fascists, heartless vermin, and so forth. They’re Conservatives. No-one seems shy of “othering” people who vote Tory or stand for election for the Tory party. Say whatever you like.