Of course, not. It is of minuscule, but perhaps totemic, importance. And yet we have had a procession of Government ministers pontificating on the subject...Straw...Kelly...Hain...and now Brown. (It is very difficult not to conclude that there is a mixture of the dog-whistle and the Labour leadership contests behind all this.)
Gordon Brown's comments about the veil yesterday were measured and dignified:
Then asked if he thought it would be "better for Britain" if fewer people wore veils, Mr Brown replied: "Well that's what Jack Straw has said and I support."
He said he is not proposing new laws (phew!).
Brown's is a reasonable and moderate position.
However, there seem to be two possibilities:
1. Muslim women wear the veil for religious reasons (according to many who have been interviewed). In this case, Britain has long been a place of religious freedoms, so we should not interfere as a society in the wish of women to do things for the sake of their religion.
2. Muslim women wear the veil because they are told to do so by their menfolk. I don't believe this and have seen or heard no evidence to support this proposition. But if we accept it, for the sake of discussion, then I would ask if the lives of these women are going to be made any more bearable by, on the one hand being told by their husband to wear the veil, and on the other, being told by the Prime Minister-in-waiting not to. Surely this will put them in a far more difficult predicament? The tangible pain of this predicament was made plain last week when one women walking along a British street had her veil stripped off her by a passer-by.
I readily accept that society applies norms on dress in silent ways. If I wanted to go to work dressed as a Viking (my dearest wish), I would probably get some strange looks and be sent home on unpaid leave by my boss. But Government ministers saying that women should not wear the veil is new territory. Has it happened before? (I can't remember any British government telling people how to dress outside of the indecent exposure laws.) It is, metaphorically, megaphonic and conscious dictation of a dress code by the government and I therefore reject it.
It is fundamentally illiberal for governments to tell women not to wear the veil, just as it is fundamentally illiberal for governments, such as the old Taliban regime in Afghanistan, to tell women to wear the veil.