Like the groundhog, David Cameron has peeked out from his burrow and, failing to see his shadow, has ventured into the open air. In a speech today on "Extremism, individual rights and the rule of law" the Tory leader finally confronted head-on the argument put forward by Rowan Williams that a plural and cohesive society requires space to be made for some aspects of religious law: notoriously, the idea that "there's one law for everybody" is "a bit of danger". Rather late, you might think: the archbishop's arguments have been countered before and exhaustively. Williams has himself found other things to concern him, today asking for more "public space" to be made available to teenagers. Still, Cameron's remarks are welcome, not least because they are bang on the money.
Partly, Cameron's target was the idea, put forward by Williams, that some formal recognition of Sharia would promote "social cohesion". He said:
I don't believe that by introducing Sharia law, we will make Muslims somehow feel more British - more content with life here and more happy to work for a common good.
In my view the opposite is the case: I think it would be to head in the wrong direction. The reality is that the introduction of Sharia law for Muslims is actually the logical endpoint of the now discredited doctrine of state multiculturalism instituting, quite literally, a legal apartheid to entrench what is the cultural apartheid in too many parts of our country.
This wouldn't strengthen society - it would undermine it. It would alienate other communities who would resent this preferential treatment.
Here, of course, DC is pushing at an open door. For this most cautious and media-savvy of politicians to enter into the debate at all would once have seemed inconceivable. Too many bad memories. There was a time when Tories were terrified of saying anything at all about multiculturalism for fear of being branded "racist". More recently, the party has tried to stress its multiculturalist credentials, leaving "Britishness" campaigns to Labour. So for Cameron to make such a clear statement is, in itself, a sign of how the ground has shifted away from the "different cultures in one society" view that was, until a few years ago, virtually unchallenged.
But the fact that Cameron feels able to say, bluntly, that "state multiculturalism is a wrong-headed doctrine that has had disastrous results", and that "it has stopped us from strengthening our collective identity. Indeed, it has deliberately weakened it," doesn't mean the argument is over. The "faith agenda", so forcefully promoted by God-botherer in chief Tony Blair, is now institutionalised and growing. It was recently confirmed, for example, that religious schools were to have their own separate inspectorate, more responsive to the "special character" of such institutions.
So it's good to know that David Cameron sees so clearly the basic problem with communitarian solutions of the type Williams appears to favour. Which is simply put: what's good for "the community" might be very bad indeed for individuals. This is what Cameron identifies as the "nub" of the Sharia danger:
It would provide succour to the separatists who want to isolate and divide communities from the mainstream. And it would - crucially - weaken, destabilise and demoralise those Muslims who embrace liberal values and desperately want to integrate fully in British society.
For too long we've caved into more extreme elements by hiding under the cloak of cultural sensitivity.
For too long we've given in to the loudest voices from each community without listening to what the majority want.
And for too long, we've come to ignore differences - even if they fly in the face of human rights, notions of equality and child protection - with a hapless shrug of the shoulders saying 'it's their culture isn't it? Let them do what they want'.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown put the case against Sharia particularly strongly in the Independent shortly after Williams made his pitch. "What he wishes on us is an abomination", she wrote:
Look around the Islamic world where sharia rules and, in every single country, these ordinances reduce our human value to less than half that is accorded a male; homosexuals are imprisoned or killed, children have no free voice or autonomy, authoritarianism rules and infantilises populations.
Truly moderate Muslims - like YAB herself - have been repeatedly betrayed, by the government, by "multicultural" local authorities, and by the pieties of an "interfaith" movement that increasingly resembles a trade union for religious bigwigs, attempting to negotiate some sort of closed shop. Rowan Williams thinks that it's the place of an established church to speak out on behalf of all "faith communities", blithely ignoring the fact that the largest "faith community" of all is the community of the not particularly religious, the weddings-and-funerals faithful who feel some sort of attachment to their ancestral creed but certainly don't want its leadership dictating their lives.
Multiculturalism may indeed lead to a fragmented, polarised, racially or religiously divided society. But that's not what's wrong with it. The objection to it is, at base, a philosophical one. It puts people into little boxes marked "ethnicity" or "religion" or "sexuality". And then it concentrates on the box, not on the person. The results, for victims of forced marriage or "honour killings", can be catastrophic. But even those who aren't subject to these headline-grabbing horrors are still often constrained or suffocated by strong, internally cohesive, "close-knit" communities. Modern, secular society should be about allowing everybody, whatever their background, the space to be themselves. And to find out, for themselves, what that means.