Nuttall told the Huffington Post yesterday that “our view is pretty much that if people need to see your face, then quite frankly it should be shown” – for example in a bank – but that the party would not bring in legislation to impose a ban, because they are “libertarians”.
Not so long ago, of course, UKIP did propose to legislate for such a ban. In its manifesto for the May 2010 general election the party pledged to “tackle extremist Islam by banning the burqa or veiled niqab in public buildings and certain private buildings”.
As Nuttall points out, that was under a different leader – namely Lord Pearson, who had close connections with the likes of Pamela Geller, the US Islamophobe who was recently banned from entering the UK because of her record of anti-Muslim hatemongering.
It was Pearson who together with Baroness Cox invited Geert Wilders to show his anti-Muslim film Fitna at the House of Lords. Pearson also attracted media attention when he warned that the UK was under threat because “the Muslims are breeding ten times faster than us”.
However, Pearson was hardly alone in backing the “burqa ban”. In the run-up to the general election, UKIP’s current leader Nigel Farage firmly supported the policy. In January 2010 he told the BBC’s Politics Show:
I can’t go into a bank with a motorcycle helmet on. I can’t wear a balaclava going round the District and Circle line. What we are saying is, this is a symbol. It’s a symbol of something that is used to oppress women. It is a symbol of an increasingly divided Britain.
And the real worry – and it isn’t just about what people wear – the real worry is that we are heading towards a situation where many of our cities are ghettoised and there is even talk about Sharia law becoming part of British culture.
In an April 2010 press release, UKIP MEP Gerard Batten explained what the “burqa ban” would involve:
All public employees shall carry out their duties with their faces uncovered; unless their particular profession requires them to cover their faces for specific tasks.
People will be required to have uncovered faces in all public buildings and premises. For example, in national and local government buildings, post offices, hospitals, doctors surgeries, schools, colleges, universities, libraries etc. This will also apply to all transport systems, their buildings and conveyances.
Private organisations, businesses, and institutions will be given the option of imposing the same rule, that faces must be uncovered, in their buildings, premises and conveyances. For example, in offices, banks, shops, cinemas, theatres, coaches, buses and taxis etc.
Those who refuse to remove face coverings in the appropriate circumstances will be refused entry. The responsibility will be on the custodians of the premises to enforce the law, with possible penalties for non-enforcement.
If UKIP had its way, virtually the only public place where women could wear the niqab would be the street.
However, it was obvious that Pearson’s views on Islam had been damaging to the party, giving it an extremist image that might deter disillusioned Tory voters from transferring their allegiance to UKIP. When he took over from Pearson as UKIP leader in November 2010, therefore, Farage tried to distance the party from the more extreme expressions of Islamophobia with which it had been associated under Pearson.
In an interview with the Guardian in December 2010, Farage stated that he was “not really in favour of banning the burqa”. He said he had never called for a ban on wearing the veil in the street (which was true) and had only argued that “if you can’t wear a motorcycle helmet in NatWest or a balaclava on the London Underground, then the law should be applied to everyone equally”. He continued:
We are going through a major policy review at the moment. I do think everybody being equal before the law is important. But is it the sort of thing we should be legislating for? I’m dubious about that. When you become the leader of a political party, you inherit an awful lot. You can’t change it all at the stroke of a pen or overnight.
It now appears that Farage has got his way and UKIP is no longer proposing legal restrictions on the wearing of the veil. It would be interesting to know when the policy was changed, and who decided to change it. There is no indication that the issue has been the subject of any democratic debate among the UKIP membership. And that is no doubt because it is questionable whether the UKIP membership would in fact support the ditching of the “burqa ban”.
When Farage announced a possible change of line on the ban in his Guardian interview, former UKIP parliamentary candidate Abhijit Pandya angrily denounced this proposal in an article on the Daily Mail website:
That the one time UKIP leader Lord Pearson had the courage to recognise the political necessity of confronting this political issue, was a break from the normal political apathy towards protecting our culture. That Nigel Farage is considering abandoning this commitment ought to force us to ask whether there is any courage left amongst our politicians to fight for our cultural heritage and gender equality.
Pandya had by that point left UKIP, but it seems likely that his views would be shared by many party members. Only yesterday Roger Helmer, the UKIP MEP who defected from the Tories last year, published a comment piece about the niqab on the party’s website in which he wrote: “I think we should ban the full face veil, at least in public places and public institutions. I am glad to see that there appears to be widespread support for this view….” (Whether Helmer favours legislation to impose such a ban is unclear.)
UKIP is notoriously both a top-down organisation and a one-man band, with Farage reportedly taking important decisions without necessarily bothering to consult anyone else in the party. It will be interesting to see how this particular decision plays out among the UKIP ranks.