Burke vs Burka

Banning the burka is a plank in UKIP's electoral platform, and that structure is tottering under the impact.

The party is suffering the slings and arrows of outraged liberals and libertarians alike, yet another situation in which the two join forces.

In fact, such situations arise so often that one is tempted to ponder if there's really much distance between the two. Semantic proximity notwithstanding, I suppose there is. Yet they are almost equidistant from conservatism.

Liberals, and I'm using the term in its modern rather than classical sense, are outraged for multi-culti reasons. To them, all religions are equally off limits for any restrictions, except perhaps Christianity.

Such egalitarianism means that all religions, especially Christianity, are equally irrelevant. No reasonable person can seriously believe that man was created by anyone other than Charles Darwin.

Yet all religions, except Christianity, have their uses. Prime among them is acting as a vehicle for expressing PC, multi-culti rectitude. Hence a woman wearing her black Halloween costume strikes a blow both for and against something.

For: she's reasserting the ultimate equality of all before Notting Hill and Islington liberals. Against, here the list is much longer: she's a walking attack on racism, Islamophobia, Christianity as the formative creed of our civilisation, the ‘establishment', little-Englandism, the evil of conservatism, monarchy, social and cultural tradition - even implicitly homophobia, although the burka religion explicitly favours tossing homosexuals off tall buildings.

In other words, support for the burka isn't worth taking seriously when it comes from such quarters. These quarters are only inhabited by fools or knaves, or typically those who combine these two aspects to the exclusion of all others.

The libertarian opposition to a ban on the burka merits a discussion, if only because libertarians, as distinct from liberals, somewhat overlap with conservatives. Unlike modern liberals and like modern conservatives, they are committed to individual liberty, which is good.

One can argue that ensuring and guarding liberty is the prime - some will say only - legitimate function of the state. That's how it was seen by the great Whig Edmund Burke, who somewhat paradoxically is the spiritual founder of modern conservatism.

Yet there's absolutely no doubt whatsoever that, if he were alive today, this unwavering champion of liberty would enthusiastically support the ban. For Burke, like every significant political thinker in history, from Aristotle onwards, understood the value of balance and moderation.

He knew that any political desideratum would turn to its opposite if pursued to the bitter end. That's why he advocated limiting, rather than abolishing, state power, whether exerted through crown or parliament.

For Burke, sage government rested on three foundations: prejudice, which is intuitive knowledge; prescription, which is truth passed on by previous generations; and presumption, which is inference from the common experience of mankind.

Unlike Margaret Thatcher, our nominally conservative heroine, Burke would never have said that there's no such thing as society - whatever the provocation (Mrs Thatcher was indeed provoked). He didn't equate liberty with social atomisation and behavioural free-for-all.

Libertarians preach individual rights über alles, and society be damned, along with its traditions, tastes and its own right to self-defence. To them any restriction on any other than manifestly criminal behaviour is intolerable.

An individual is well within his rights to do anything that doesn't hurt other individuals. Society, on the other hand, if it exists at all, has no right to censure anything it finds abhorrent - such is a libertarian tenet.

The belief that extreme views tend to converge is platitudinous but not invariably wrong.

Like the liberals, the libertarians have no time for custom and tradition - these to them have only antiquarian significance, if any. Like the liberals, they oppose only acts that are physically, rather than socially, harmful. Like the liberals, they are materialists who generally have no time for religion: religion, after all, is bound to impose restrictions on individual liberty (as opposed to individual freedom, a critical distinction that doesn't exist in less precise languages, such as French).

However, they support unlimited liberty of religious expression not because they have much respect for faith of any kind, but because this liberty falls within the rubric of individual liberties in general. Hence their opposition to a ban on the burka.

An individual, they say, has every right to espouse whatever religion he fancies and therefore display in public any paraphernalia of his faith. What the religion is, what standards of behaviour it imposes, who espouses it, what crimes are routinely committed in its name, what offence it causes to ancient public customs - such considerations are immaterial to them.

Libertarians will oppose some Muslim customs, those they see as impinging on the rights of other individuals. I doubt many libertarians would welcome such Islamic practices as female genital mutilation, honour killing, the stoning of adulterers or tossing homosexuals off tall buildings. At the same time they'll refuse to acknowledge the social and aesthetic offence caused by persons walking around with their faces covered up.

Yes, Muslims have an inalienable right to believe whatever they want. Society should have no say in the matter of private convictions. However, when such convictions are manifested publicly, society is no longer disfranchised.

In this case, it's within its right to say that any British resident isn't only a sovereign individual but also a social and legal entity. To act in that capacity, such a resident must be identifiable as distinct from other residents. Since a resident's face is the most obvious and reliable means of identification, it should be open to inspection at all times.

Such elementary logic is beyond the libertarians. As is the simple truth that individual liberties, important though they are, shouldn't be allowed to become a suicide pact.

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Alexander Boot blogs at www.alexanderboot.com/blog.