It was probably inevitable that the near-unanimous vote in the French National Assembly for a ban on women wearing full-face veils in public would prompt the reopening of the burka debate here.
It last erupted four years ago, after Jack Straw disclosed that he asked women to remove their face covering if they came to his constituency surgery, as he felt uncomfortable talking to people whose face he could not see. The argument went to and fro, but the fact that, after an initial outcry, the issue has remained quiescent reflects well on community relations in Britain.
Recent moves to legislate against the burka in Belgium and now in France, however, were bound to have reverberations here – which they have duly done, with a Tory backbencher and Ukip both demanding a similar law here. If we disregard the irony that it is from Euro-sceptic quarters that pressure for a common burka ban is coming, we can be content that, so far, the calls remain confined to quite rarefied recesses of British politics.
There can be little doubt, though, that they could soon rise to a clamour if there were the slightest hint of official sympathy. We hope there will not be. While the full-face veil, and the subordination it denotes, runs counter to much we prize, religious and cultural tolerance is a hallmark of this country and must remain so. Within the realm of decency, people should not be instructed how to dress. The idea of police imposing on-the-spot fines for burka-wearing is repugnant, but it could also lead to more women being, in effect, imprisoned in their homes. This is not a solution.
It is regrettable that there are people living in this country who persist in this display of otherness. And there are circumstances where the burka can have no place. Women who have claimed the right to wear full-face veils while practising as lawyers or teachers have lost their cases; a bar was, rightly, set. For the rest, social pressure will have to suffice – exerted by the majority for whom face and self-worth are one.