The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has come in for much stick over the years, especially in Britain, where it is widely seen as far too indulgent towards manifest villains, such as foreign criminals who refuse to go home.
We Europhiles can object as loudly as we like that Strasbourg is not at all the same as Brussels and that any fault rests equally with British judges for the generous interpretation they place on European human rights provisions, but no one really listens. Strasbourg still takes the flak.
So I wonder what those same critics made of the judgment the court handed down this week, upholding the right of France to ban the niqab – or to be precise, the wearing of the full-face veil in public.
For my part, I was surprised – and that puts it mildly. Cultural tolerance always seemed one of the court’s guiding principles. The notion that it might carry the torch for what constitutes quite a prescriptive view of European-ness seems to cut across that in a big way.
The ruling is not completely without precedent. In 2008, the same court upheld the right of the French government to ban the wearing of Islamic headscarves in schools. This judgment, though, seemed to reflect more a sort of judicial “subsidiarity” – an acceptance by Strasbourg that the last word on such matters should rest with the national courts - rather than anything more sweeping. The ruling was about schools, not about a way of life.
The latest judgment seems different. For a start, this is because it relates to public places and, in effect, the whole public sphere. But, while it is carefully worded – as indeed is the French legislation – mentioning face-covering in general, with no reference to religion – the ruling also makes explicit the social and cultural aspect. In so doing, it comes close to defining something of what it might mean to be European.
The official court statement said that the court had been “able to understand the view that individuals might not wish to see, in places open to all, practices or attitudes which would fundamentally call into question the possibility of open interpersonal relationships, which, by virtue of an established consensus, formed an indispensable element of community life within the society in question."
The generality of the judgment opens the way for other European governments to follow suit. Belgium enacted such a law three years ago; some cities in Spain and Italy have their own by-laws. Other governments, including our own, may feel that enacting such legislation could be dangerously counterproductive, driving a section of the population that already feels alienated and perhaps unwelcome even further from the mainstream.
I can well imagine, though, that the judgment from Strasbourg will encourage opponents of the full-face veil in Britain to lobby for legislation here. This may help to explain why ministers seem to have played it down. Recent surveys suggest that a large majority of the population would support a ban – and, I admit, I would be among them - for the very same social and cultural considerations as cited by the judges in Strasbourg.
It does not seem unreasonable to expect those who choose to settle in Britain to observe the prevailing social norms, whether that is not throwing your rubbish from your balcony; being married to one wife at a time; not having your daughters “cut” – or not covering your face.
The British preference for muddling through has so far resulted in piecemeal edicts about full-face veils worn by students at universities (OK, not OK, then OK again); lawyers and defendants in courts (sometimes OK); teachers in schools (not OK), and hospital staff (not OK), though how well enforced these provisions are is another matter.
Legislation would, of course, be divisive; enforcement still more so, especially if police started to patrol areas with large Muslim populations, handing out fines or invitations to citizenship classes. Some of these same areas, however, have already been targeted by Muslim vigilantes, threatening women walking around in Western dress, so you could argue that a greater police presence would not go amiss.
In matters of cultural difference, the UK has generally preferred an attitude of “live and let live” to France’s overt pressure to conform. But the ruling from Strasbourg this week could fuel popular pressure, in this one respect, for us to become a little more like the French.
At the height of the Ukraine crisis, I was called by BBC Breakfast, to see whether I could appear “on the sofa” to talk about it. There was, though, a complication. To sit on that sofa, I would need to take the train to Manchester and spend the night in a hotel. I declined, as gracefully as I could, pointing out that what might look to a BBC producer like not very much of my time at all – after all, everything would be arranged for me, I could work on the train, spend a pleasant night in a hotel, and be back in London by mid-morning - would in fact amount to quite a big slice out of my life. With a husband who is not well, I try to spend as few nights away as possible – and I imagine the same goes for others, including mothers of small children.
Radio, at least for those of us being interviewed, presents less of a problem. You do not, for instance, have to be seen on the sofa. You can be pretty much anywhere. If you are a presenter or a producer, however, and the planning and production happens in Salford, then it does matter – which is why (call me shamefully London-centric) it seemed strange for the BBC to move news-led operations, including Breakfast and Radio Five Live to Salford, when the rest of the national news operation remained in London.
The risk – some might say promise – was that these programmes would lose their national news edge and acquire a non-metropolitan, possibly northern, accent. This is what now seems to be happening with the departure of two of Radio 5 Live’s most familiar, and pitch-perfect, female voices, those of Victoria Derbyshire and Shelagh Fogarty, and what looks like a decided tilt towards (even) more sport. If the BBC wants to have a dedicated radio sports channel, let’s have one – and take the cricket off Radio 3. But then let’s have a proper news-only channel, too.
Let’s not forget that the London channel, LBC, has gone national, trying to draw listeners from across the country, while remaining rooted in the capital. The terrain for rolling national news and topical phone-ins may be more contested than the BBC thinks.