Fidgeting may indicate mendacity. Or it may just reveal a person terrified of being thought dishonest
A lot of non-Muslims have trouble with the terminology attached to the different forms of Islamic dress worn by some women. Niqab, hijab, chador, burka: it’s a lot to keep straight in your head, and one can only feel sympathy for those who struggle. It is, perhaps, with those people in mind that Ken Clarke has settled upon his latest cut-the-crap wheeze: sod the differences, just refer to the thing as a bag.
That, at any rate, is the conclusion that you might draw from his weekend appearance on the radio, which he used to add his two penn’orth to the endless debate about the suitability of such sartorial choices to thecourtroom. As so often, he sounded like a confused but genial explorer who believes himself to be in foreign climes before realising with a start that he is, in fact, at home. “I do think it’s a most peculiar costume for people to adopt in the 21st century,” he said. And if we raise an eyebrow at the loaded word “costume”, it is as nothing compared with the later observation that “it’s almost impossible to have a proper trial if one person’s in a kind of bag”.
Much of the attention that Clarke has drawn has dwelled on the belittling implications of his particular choice of word. Cristina Odone, for example, wondered whether he would refer to a nun’s habit as a bin liner. In fact, though, the complexity of the debate on the veil in general obscures a narrower, but much more significant, point for the courtroom in particular. Ken Clarke, like many others, suggests that a defendant with a covered face makes it impossible properly to assess the evidence. The only problem is that this doesn’t seem to be true.
We shouldn’t be too harsh on the former Chancellor. After all, he is only mimicking the judge who ruled that a defendant should be obliged to remove her niqab when giving evidence back in September. “If a fair trial is to take place,” Judge Peter Murphy wrote, “the jury… must be able to assess the credibility of the witnesses – to judge how they react to being questioned.” He, in turn, approvingly quoted a New Zealand judge who listed some of the situations in which a witness’s demeanour might be a giveaway. “The witness who moves from expressing himself calmly to an excited gabble,” for example; “the witness who from speaking clearly with good eye contact becomes hesitant and starts looking at his feet.”