Jack’s Straw’s original article from the Lancashire Telegraph can be found here. In it he says that if he’s having a meeting with someone wearing a full veil he asks them if they wouldn’t mind lifting the veil because he feels “uncomfortable about talking to someone “face-to-face” who I could not see”. It’s already spawned an article on Comment is Free, which responds by saying that “Not only are Muslims right to be up in arms at Mr Straw’s suggestion but we hope the rest of society will join us in opposing his attempt to curb basic freedoms such as how we dress”. I don’t actually think he’s trying to do that, is he; if he’s trying to curb anything, it’s how people dress in his office, which he’s entitled to do. Choosing how you dress in Jack Straw’s office isn’t really a basic freedom, is it?
But on the subject of scarcely believable overreactions to the most innocuous and harmless of comments, I enjoyed this story in yesterday’s Times. It’s about David Clutterbuck, a Tory councillor in Bournemouth who replied to a joke email sent by a colleague. The “joke” – which isn’t terribly funny – was about Noah being asked to build another Ark, and being unable to because of regulations, red tape etc. In it Noah complains that “my neighbours claim that I should have obtained planning permission”, and “the unions insist I have to hire only CSCS accredited workers with Ark-building experience”. Councillor Clutterbuck replied to fellow Tory Anne Filer, saying “I imagine now it would be illegal to only have animals of the opposite sex!”. Now, at the age of 72, he’s facing calls by Liberal Democrat councillors to be sent on “compulsory equality training”:
The outraged councillors demanded that Mr Clutterbuck apologise and re-educate himself in equality. Mike Carlisle said: “The comment even in fun is at best childish and at worst shows that certain local Conservatives are locked into the distant past. I urge if we are truly going to embrace diversity all members should have compulsory equality training. I would urge those enlightened Conservative councillors, and I know there are some, to challenge Councillor Clutterbuck on his attitudes to minority communities.
Claire Smith, another Liberal Democrat, said: “It goes against the recent motion in full council to remind us all to be inclusive. Can we expect an apology and an assurance that we will not be copied in on these tedious and frankly offensive remarks? The council e-mail service is not the place for such bigoted remarks and I am shocked that the one place I always seem to hear such disgusting talk is at the town hall and from councillors. And before I get an irate e-mail saying about freedom of speech, this is a work-related e-mail service and therefore I also have rights not to have to read unrelated dirt”. Richard Smith, leader of Bournemouth Borough Council, said: “I think it is appropriate for Councillor Clutterbuck to recognise that he has caused offence to a minority group of people and he should apologise to them”.
Anybody who’s ever worked in an office will have received, and deleted, stuff like this, I hope without demanding that the sender attends compulsory equality training, which I can’t imagine being terribly useful or worthwhile if you’re 72. Of course in saying that I may well be exhibiting prejudicial attitudes about older members of the community and thereby failing to embrace diversity. Perhaps I require compulsory equality training. I doubt it though – what bothers me more than Councillor Clutterbuck’s unfunny but absolutely and utterly harmless comment is the idea that the poor man requires some sort of re-education programme, and should be made to apologise to any gay animals he may have offended, and the quite ridiculous doublespeak in the idea that he should embrace diversity by attending a compulsory course telling him what to think. Then again though, I’ve never undergone compulsory equality training perhaps I don’t yet understand how vital it is. It sounds fairly grim to me though; please let me know if it is.
One person I know who has been taught the importance of diversity is my friend Cliff, who before buying a pub in Brighton had to attend a Modern Licensed Retailer course. His trainer was called Pauline, like in the League of Gentleman, and was sufficiently diverse to demand the reintroduction of golliwogs to the front of jam jars. In a section about employment law she explained that you’re no longer allowed to discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation. Cliff is from Brighton, and a goth, and would never dream of discriminating against someone based on their sexual orientation. Still, Pauline turned to Cliff and his wife, and told them, “So that might be a problem for you, in Brighton”.
Postscript at about a quarter past 8: Norm expresses the extraordinary view that my view is an “extraordinary view”, and in particular says that yes, it is a basic freedom to dress however you want, even within the confines of Jack Straw’s office. To the extent that I’d be opposed to Jack Straw instigating an actual ban on veils in his office, I agree with this. My point is only that he’s entitled to request that he can see someone’s face when they’re talking to him across his desk, whether this means the removal of a motorcycle helmet, a Zorro mask, a veil or whatever. Similarly if he preferred naturists to wear clothes when attending meetings, I’d say he was entitled to express this preference as well. To make these requests or to express these preferences isn’t a curb on that person’s freedom. And I don’t think this is an issue of rights, freedom etc.