Monday, November 27, 2006

Liberty belle becomes a pin-up for extremism

Shami Chakrabarti is to Britain’s intelligentsia what Posh Spice was to teenage girls. Well, if success and celebrity are synonymous. Always available to perform on the Today programme or in the columns of serious newspapers, the director of Liberty has made herself the closest thing this country possesses to an intellectual pin-up girl. But in making her instant opinions so universally available she has done little for the cause she claims to promote.

The core challenge to democracy since September 11, 2001, has been to achieve proportionality between the competing priorities of individual liberty and public protection. Ms Chakrabarti has come down relentlessly on the quasi-anarchist side of the debate. Her defence of individual rights against collective needs takes the demos out of democracy and leaves her organisation marooned on the extra-parliamentary left of politics.

In her enthusiasm to see the good in every terrorist suspect and a heart of unalloyed evil in each successive Home Secretary, the lady from Liberty has revealed extraordinary naivety about Labour’s favourite tactic. Acquired from Bill Clinton, the trick known as triangulation seeks to popularise government policy by contrasting it with the views of unpopular minorities. Ms Chakrabarti never rejects the invitation to play the extremist.

Almost single-handedly she has shifted the civil liberties lobby so far beyond the parameters of mainstream opinion that ministers pray she will oppose them. Their logic is simple: if Liberty objects, Middle Britain will automatically conclude that a policy is pure common sense.

Ms Chakrabarti easily achieved her ambition to reassert Liberty’s prominence after its name change from the National Council for Civil Liberties. But since then, through reams of anti-terror law and attempts to control asylum and antisocial behaviour, she has forgotten what the “civil” in that historic title meant. Liberty’s guiding principle should be John Stuart Mill’s advice that “The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.” By championing the errant individual to the detriment of the majority she ignores it completely.

Few mistakes better illustrate this debilitating flaw than Liberty’s backing for Graeme Chessum, the Nottinghamshire man banned from his local pubs for behaving aggressively towards staff at one of them. The Pubwatch scheme under which he is excluded is a fine example of community action against antisocial conduct. As such it achieves the utilitarian ideal of the greatest good of the greatest number. By threatening to challenge it under human rights legislation Liberty extends beyond absurdity its director’s faith that high profile is preferable to high principle.



MILLIONS of families were facing a new wave of taxes on their holidays last night. Chancellor Gordon Brown will announce his latest cash raid in the run-up to Christmas. Middle Britain will be hammered by a series of stealth taxes which will be disguised as green measures. Holiday and business flights along with family cars are set to be the target of the new squeeze. Mr Brown, who has devised more than 80 ways of increasing tax since taking over at the Treasury, will say the higher levies are vital to save the planet from global warming.

Last night critics warned that the green agenda will be merely an excuse to wring yet more cash out of Britain's hard-working families, with questionable benefits for the environment. James Frayne, of the TaxPayers' Alliance pressure group, said: "This confirms what we have suspected: Politicians are going to start raising taxes massively in the name of the environment. "It's a convenient excuse. All they are interested in is extra revenue. These tax rises will penalise millions of ordinary middle class families."

Mr Brown is expected to unveil plans in his Pre-Budget Report on December 6 for an increase in air passenger duty, which is paid by every traveller leaving a UK airport. Tax on bigger family cars is also expected to rise in a bid to outflank David Cameron, who has put the environment at the heart of his Tory policy agenda.

Shadow Chancellor George Osborne said last night: "I want to see a shift to green taxes but they have to pay for tax reductions elsewhere. "My motto is pay as you burn, not pay as you earn. My fear about Gordon Brown is that he will use this as an excuse for a stealthy increase in the tax burden for families." Radical action to stave off disaster for the Earth was demanded by the recent Stern review, which was commissioned by the Treasury.

Mr Brown was said yesterday to have been persuaded that higher air passenger duty, which was frozen in the spring Budget, could have a part to play in tackling the damage done by aviation. There are currently four rates: 5 or 10 pounds for European destinations, and 20 or 40 for long-haul flights. An indication of Government thinking on the issue was revealed in a leaked memo from Environment Secretary David Miliband. He said air travel was "lightly taxed". Slapping 5 on air passenger duty would bring in 400 million a year, he said, adding that there was also a case for levying VAT on flights.

James Fremantle, of the Air Transport Users Council, said: "We do not shut our eyes to environmental concerns, and passengers have those concerns too. "But we are not convinced that raising air passenger duty would be the way to go. We are not convinced that higher taxes would stop people flying.''

Mr Brown is also poised to pile more pressure on the owners of family cars, believing that raising indirect taxation could help to persuade motorists to switch to less polluting vehicles. Since March, vehicle excise duty has included a top band of 210 pounds a year for new cars which emit the most carbon dioxide. Vehicles likely to be targeted include Land Rover Freelanders and Discoveries, and also Jeeps. But any new tax would also hit Mondeo Man, long seen as a political barometer, by affecting 2.5-litre models as well as owners of Vauxhall Astra 2L Twin Tops and Vauxhall Vectra 2.8Ls.

But critics say the 20 pound increase has not done enough to dissuade people from buying the most polluting models. Mr Miliband called for tough measures to combat car use and ownership, with a substantial increase in road tax to force people to switch to smaller vehicles.

Edmund King of the RAC Foundation stressed the Government must ensure that any duty rises are announced several years in advance of taking effect. "We have no problem with higher tax for the more polluting vehicles, it's about giving people time to adapt," he said. Liberal Democrat Chris Huhne said official figures this week showed that green taxes on fuel, vehicles, energy and landfill fell last year to 2.9 per cent of national income, the lowest since 1989. He added: "Reports about raising vehicle excise duty and air passenger duty would ring rather less hollow if Gordon Brown did not have such an embarrassing record on environmental taxes."

Mr Brown's Pre-Budget report is also expected to support an international market in carbon trading in which companies can buy and sell emission quotas to keep the overall level within a set limit. The Treasury last night described as "speculation" reports that Mr Brown was poised to raise taxes on air travel and large cars.



Odd that such exams were not too hard for British kids in the past!

An exam modelled on the old O-level is too difficult to be offered in state schools, a report has revealed. Watchdogs concluded that International GCSEs in key subjects are "more demanding" than the standard exam, effectively ruling out their introduction in state secondaries. Hundreds of private schools have already adopted IGCSEs in some subjects, mainly maths and science, because they consider them to be better preparation for A-levels.

Now a report from the Government's exams watchdog has confirmed that popular IGCSE syllabuses contain tougher questions and challenge pupils on topics that GCSE pupils only encounter at AS-level. But it means that, without substantial changes, they cannot be added to the list of qualifications approved for use in state schools since they are not directly comparable to GCSEs. The exams may need to be dumbed down if they are to fit strict official criteria laid down for teenagers' studies.

Opposition politicians warned of a widening gulf between the state and independent sectors as fee-paying schools increasingly turn to tougher qualifications. Ministers admitted yesterday there were "significant obstacles" to the introduction of IGCSEs in secondary schools. But they agreed to launch a public consultation on whether they should "explore further" with exam boards "how to overcome these obstacles".

IGCSEs were developed primarily for schools overseas but are attracting increasing interest from British private schools dissatisfied with the standard GCSE. They are similar to the old O-level - scrapped in 1987 - as pupils are tested in a series of final exams at the end of a two-year course. There is a coursework option but most schools do not use it. Teachers also consider questions to be more "traditional" and open-ended.

The report from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority exposes the apparently low demands placed on GCSE candidates in crucial subjects compared with counterparts abroad who are following IGCSE syllabuses. It reveals that English GCSEs have too many "formulaic questions" while pupils taking double science GCSE are even awarded marks for giving the wrong answers. They can be given credit if an answer is written in "appropriately scientic" language - even if "the science is incorrect".

But there were sharp variations across the two exam boards offering IGCSEs. IGCSEs set by Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) is taken in 200 independent schools, in at least one subject, while Edexcel's are used in 170. But only CIE's papers were found to be more demanding than standard GCSEs. And out of four subjects studied, CIE papers in just two - maths and science - were judged to be tougher. The report said: "The content of the CIE IGCSE coordinated syllabus is broad and deep compared with the other syllabuses reviewed. A number of the areas included are currently part of AS syllabuses. "CIE IGCSE was judged to be more demanding for the higher tier candidates and very demanding for foundation tier candidates." In contrast, standard GCSEs were "less demanding than they should be" for brighter candidates

Meanwhile a CIE maths paper was "by a long way" more difficult than others reviewed by a panel of assessors. Candidates were only allowed scientific calculators and no formula sheets. There were also "extensive structured questions" which "require organisation and a systematic approach from candidates". The report concluded there were "major differences" between GCSEs and IGCSEs across all four subjects studied - maths, science, English and French. "In almost every case, these differences meant that the IGCSE examinations did not meet the GCSE subject criteria in significant ways" it said.

Nick Gibb, Tory schools spokesman, said: "If the Government and the QCA refuse to allow state schools the same options as independent schools, an even greater divide between the two sectors will emerge as schools in the private sector increasingly adopt what the QCA has termed the 'demanding' IGCSE exam."



Since its birth 58 years ago, Israel has always been prepared to compromise for peace. From Begin's agreement with Sadat in 1979 to the Arafat-Barak talks at Camp David in 2000, Israeli leaders have been prepared to challenge their own people in pursuit of peace. Last summer Israel withdrew from Gaza, angry settlers and all. Yet the terror from the Gaza Strip has continued - more than 1,000 rockets have been fired into southern Israel in the past year. Since 2000, nine fatalities have been caused by Qassam missiles.

Some media have reported the panic these missiles have caused but they downplay the impact because of the small scale of fatalities compared with those on the Palestinian side. My husband, a British soldier, is currently serving a tour of duty in Iraq. His unit has come under mortar fire nearly every night for the past six months. Not many service personnel have been killed by these missiles but every soldier fears that the next one might have his or her name on it. Do you think that a child, a parent or a grandmother in one of the towns bordering Gaza thinks there have been "only" nine fatalities? Can you imagine what that does to a civilian population?

We need to think carefully about the consequences of questioning the defensive reactions of a nation-state that is constantly bombarded by an enemy calling for its destruction, especially after it has withdrawn from Lebanon and Gaza. Would we as British citizens accept a single rocket on a British town, let alone hundreds?

The commentators' objection is that the response is "disproportionate". But how does a nation-state defend itself against a terrorist organisation or organisations that are part of, and deliberately hide behind, ordinary citizens? Of course the Israeli military and all military forces must act ethically. But if the number of civilian casualties continues to be the main issue, there is no incentive for the terrorists to stop using the civilian population as a shield.

We live in dangerous times when, in parts of the left especially, you can't be a friend to Islam or to Muslims unless you are anti-Israel. That is exactly what al-Qaida wants us to think. Events in Rochdale at the last election represent a microcosm of what we are sleepwalking into globally. The Islamists and the left argued that, because I supported Israel and its right to exist, all my work for my Muslim constituents was a lie. They suggested I was an opportunistic, neocon Zionist, aiming to dupe them.

Israel's willingness to compromise for peace has never been enough, because Israel alone cannot gain peace. The Palestinians and others in the region also have to want peace. Israel needs a serious interlocutor so that peace can stand a chance. So my question to the left is this: why not concentrate your attention there, rather than on the one player in the region who has always been serious about peace?

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