Editor’s Note: James Kirkup is the director of the Social Market Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank based in London. He was previously political and executive editor of The Daily Telegraph. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Thanks to Boris Johnson, the UK’s recently resigned foreign secretary, British politicians and British media are talking about the burqa.
This week, Johnson wrote a newspaper column to liken Muslim women wearing veils to postboxes and bank robbers. That offended some people. Others agreed with him.
There followed an angry row that will, eventually, fizzle out without resolution, both sides sticking to their starting positions and perhaps thinking even less of the people on the other side of the argument.
But here’s the real story of Boris and the burqa: Britain has taken another step down the dismal path toward the Culture War approach to politics that disfigures the United States today.
In a purely numerical sense, debate about the veil is wildly disproportionate. According to Full Fact, around 5% of the entire UK population is Muslim (though polls show most voters believe the figure is closer to 15%).
There are maybe 1.5 million Muslim women in Britain, of whom very, very few actually wear veils. There are no official or even academic estimates, but a few years back, an official estimate in France (which has a slightly larger Muslim population) suggested that, at most, a couple of thousand women wore niqabs or burqas.
It seems reasonable to suggest that a very, very small proportion of the 65 million or so people who live in Britain wear the face-coverings that have got politicians and journalists so excited.
The suggestion that this is a debate about the welfare and freedom of Muslim women is a little hard to swallow too.
There are social and economic problems that affect far more Muslim women: they’re more likely to be in poor health, less likely to be employed and less likely to speak functional English than any other group.
If a fraction of the political energy expended on the burqa debate focused on those issues, things might just improve for those women, and the country as a whole.
But of course, this isn’t a debate about Muslim women. It’s a debate about culture, values and the way people see the world. Such perceptions are increasingly important to British politics, overtaking the old divisions of social class and income as predictors of voters’ views.
YouGov polling last year shows that the burqa issue is another of the dividing lines that separate British people according to their outlook and opinions. The evidence suggests that the country can increasingly be divided into two groups that are defined not by wealth but by their perceptions of Britain’s society and place in the world.
On one side of the divide are those who voted to leave the European Union, who worry about immigration and the way British society has changed in recent years.
They tend to be older and less likely to hold a university degree: educational attainment is perhaps the most important and overlooked predictor of British political attitudes today.
On the other side of the divide are Remain voters who are relaxed about immigration and a multicultural society. They are younger and more likely to have a degree.
The burqa question divides these groups neatly. 70% of those who voted to leave the EU support a burqa ban. 30% of remainers do. 65% of people aged 65 and over want a ban. Only 26% of under-25s do.
The division between these two sides was revealed spectacularly in June 2016 when one group voted to leave the EU and the other did not.
What is possibly even more important for Britain’s future is that more than two years on, there are no signs that the division is narrowing. Polls show attitudes on Brexit remain very similar to where they were in 2016, positions on both sides looking increasingly like they are set in stone.
Perhaps it is possible for bold and inclusive political leadership to start to narrow that gap, to bring people together and find points of common agreement on culture and values – to offer an idea of Britain that a broad majority of voters can accept and share.
But for now, there is no sign of any leader or party offering such leadership. The big parties are both split by that big cultural divide, desperately trying to straddle the gap in attitudes and experiencing increasing internal tensions as a result.
The burqa row has publicly and painfully split the governing Conservative Party, just as the opposition Labour Party is publicly and painfully split over anti-Semitism.
Whether or not Johnson started this row deliberately is probably incidental. What matters is what results from that row. The most likely consequence is that British politics and society become a little more divided and thus even harder to govern.