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Extremists on both sides are exploiting the Batley school row

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The writer, a former head of the Downing Street policy unit, is a Harvard senior fellow

When President Emmanuel Macron of France lauded Samuel Paty, the teacher murdered last year after showing pupils a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed, some teachers retorted that they could do with more than just warm words from the state when it came to teaching free speech. “#NousSommesChoyés” some tweeted sarcastically after Jean Castex, Macron’s prime minister, said the French education system was “choyée” — cherished.

In France, teachers have found themselves on the frontline of the country’s fight for secular values. This is not just about the extreme example of showing an image that much of Islam interprets as being proscribed by the Koran, and that large numbers of Muslims find deeply offensive. A recent survey indicated that nearly half of French secondary schoolteachers avoid or downplay subjects that they fear might upset pupils, including sexuality, the Holocaust and evolution.

The UK has generally prided itself on better handling of cultural sensitivities, and not pushing minorities into desperate banlieues. But the protests and death threats in West Yorkshire, against a teacher at Batley Grammar School who allegedly showed pupils a cartoon of the prophet, raise uncomfortable questions for Britain, too.

We don’t know exactly what happened: the lesson was apparently a religious studies session on blasphemy, and an independent investigation is under way. But the teacher has gone into hiding in fear of his life, after being named on social media by protest organisers and a local charity, Purpose For Life. The school has not simply apologised, but also promised to review the religious studies curriculum “to ensure no other resource or statement is inappropriate”.

It is one thing to listen to genuinely aggrieved parents. It is another to rush into pledging censorship. A petition in support of the suspended teacher, apparently started by pupils, has attracted tens of thousands of signatures. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Taj Hargey, a progressive South African-born Oxford imam, have defended the teacher’s right to free speech. The National Education Union told me that it is “fully supporting its members at Batley Grammar School” but would not say what, if anything, it is doing to support the teacher.

Religious education, like sex education, is a minefield. Both are vigorously contested by conservative parents of various faiths. Officially compulsory, both contain some opt-outs. This dismays some headteachers, who tell me it hampers their attempts to broaden pupils’ horizons and improve their career prospects by teaching them about other faiths and to think critically.

The Muslim news site 5Pillars, cited by Policy Exchange, a think-tank, gave an insight into what the teacher might have been trying to do. It said he gave some background to what happened when Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, published the cartoon, and “asked who was to blame — the cartoonist for drawing, publishing it and causing offence, or the person who killed the French teacher for showing it?”

That question was surely a legitimate one for him to pose, although it might not have been essential to actually show the cartoon (if he did). The deeper issue is how many parents would regard the debate itself as unacceptable, even without the image. Mohammad Sajad Hussain, the founder of Purpose for Life, has said the teacher’s behaviour was “sadistic” and that “we can’t use the expression, freedom of speech, to offend people”. But freedom of speech is more than an expression. It is a value. How should the establishment respond to people who find the debate itself offensive?

Gavin Williamson, education secretary, has condemned the protests, and Sajid Javid, a former chancellor, has said the teacher “should not be intimidated in any way”. But statements made at high altitude also need to translate into action on the ground.

For years, the state has sent mixed messages. In Birmingham, a teacher developed a programme called “No Outsiders” on the theme of inclusion. Initially praised by the Department for Education, it met a storm of protest from parents who disliked its promotion of LBGT to young children, including a tale of two male penguins raising a chick. Whitehall changed its tune, and was accused by the head of the local school trust of putting “extreme pressure” on teachers to stop the lessons.

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I wouldn’t mind if ministers had come to the view that very young children should not be taught about sexuality. Instead, they gave teachers the impression that they wouldn’t be supported if they ran into trouble for following the curriculum. Ironically, “No Outsiders” was a response to government demands that schools teach British values after the “Trojan Horse” events of 2014, in which some Birmingham teachers were bullied out of their jobs and abandoned by both government and the council.

Batley, the former constituency of Jo Cox, the Labour MP murdered in 2016 by a far-right extremist, is a potential tinder box. Baroness Sayeeda Warsi has rightly warned the row risks being “hijacked by extremists on both sides”.

Arguably, the calmest note has been struck not by the panicked elite, but by the Batley petition. “The teacher was trying to educate students about racism and blasphemy,” it states. “He is not racist and did not support the Islamophobic cartoons in any manner.”

A multicultural society must tread carefully with regard to people’s beliefs. But it must not let the self-righteous become the thought police.



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Post-Brexit rules threaten N Ireland aerospace, minister warns

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Northern Ireland’s economy minister is pushing the UK government to ease the strains of post-Brexit rules that threaten the competitiveness of the region’s aerospace industry by forcing companies to pay tariffs on raw materials imported from Great Britain.

Diane Dodds outlined aerospace companies’ mounting concerns in a recent letter to Lord David Frost, the Cabinet minister in charge of post-Brexit trade arrangements, and urged him to “ensure that the competitive position of Northern Ireland businesses within the UK internal market was not damaged” by the imposition of tariffs.

Under the Northern Ireland protocol, which sets the terms for the region’s post-Brexit trade, raw materials moved by aerospace companies from Britain to Northern Ireland are defined as being “at risk” of being moved into the EU.

That means the importing company has to pay tariffs on the raw materials as soon as they enter Northern Ireland or Ireland, a cost that could run to £14m a year according to ADS, Britain’s trade body which represents most of the 90 aerospace companies that employ more than 10,000 people in Northern Ireland.

The actual tariffs are ultimately refundable, but ADS said administration costs could run to as much as £65m annually and argued that the raw materials should be tariff-exempt because they are highly specific and only ever likely to be used for aerospace, an industry whose products are generally exempt from tariffs under World Trade Organization rules.

Dodd’s intervention came as prime minister Boris Johnson told the BBC that he was still trying to remove what he termed the “ludicrous barriers” and “unnecessary protuberances” thrown up by the protocol.

Johnson’s repeated denials of the practical realities arising from the protocol since its October signing have caused significant frustration among EU member states and the European Commission, which has launched legal action to force the UK to fully implement the deal.

Neale Richmond, European affairs spokesman for Ireland’s Fine Gael party — a member of the ruling coalition — accused Johnson of deploying “needless verbiage” instead of focusing on making the protocol operational. “Worth remembering that what Boris Johnson calls ludicrous is what he himself negotiated & ratified, the post Brexit protocol isn’t a foreign construct,” he added on Twitter.

The commission declined to comment on Johnson’s latest remarks, but said it was continuing “technical level” talks with the UK over the protocol’s implementation. Germany’s Europe minister, Michael Roth, repeated on Tuesday that the EU wanted the UK to commit to a “binding timeline for the full implementation of the protocol”.

Northern Ireland’s aerospace industry wants the UK government to use the UK-EU Joint Committee, which oversees the implementation of the UK’s withdrawal agreement, to agree a tariff exemption that “recognises the tariff-free nature of international trade in aircraft components and enables them to compete on a level playing field”, said Kevin Craven, interim chief executive of ADS.

The current regime “risk(s) putting companies at a disadvantage against international competitors”, Craven said.

Northern Ireland has a long-established aerospace cluster spanning design to manufacturing, including aircraft seats for many of the world’s airlines. America’s Spirit AeroSystems, which took over Bombardier’s Northern Ireland operations last year, is one of the largest employers and makes the wings for the Airbus A220.

Several manufacturers told the Financial Times the issue was already affecting supply chains. One executive reported recently cancelling a contract with a longstanding raw material supplier based in Britain in favour of an EU alternative.

“Northern Ireland needs to get support from [the Republic] and London and I don’t see much effort in London to help the situation,” Conor McCarthy, founder of Dublin Aerospace, one of the Republic of Ireland’s largest aerospace companies, said.

“The deep engineering and manufacturing heritage in NI should be the attraction and the payback for the British government is to alleviate their economic burden there with two out of every three jobs being a government job of some description.”

The Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland said the minister had asked the UK government to consider how tariffs could damage the industry.

“The difficulties this sector has experienced around the world due to Covid-19 are well known. This is also a sector where components tend to move between manufacturing sites during the manufacturing process,” it added. 





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German ruling party backs Laschet as candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor

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Armin Laschet has won the backing of Germany’s governing Christian Democratic Union in his bid to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, after a campaign that exposed deep rifts in the party five months before national elections.

Thirty-one of 46 members of the CDU’s executive committee backed Laschet in a secret vote, with his rival, Markus Söder, prime minister of Bavaria, receiving just nine, according to the party. There were six abstentions.

The result means Laschet is all but certain to be the centre-right’s candidate for chancellor in September’s Bundestag election, when Merkel will bow out after 16 years as Germany’s leader.

Söder, who is leader of the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, had said he would accept a clear vote in favour of Laschet.

But the ballot revealed deep misgivings among senior Christian Democrats about Laschet’s suitability to run. The party executive had given its unanimous backing to his candidacy last week, but he garnered just 77.5 per cent of the vote, with 22.5 per cent going to Söder.

Laschet, 60, was elected CDU leader in January. But he has struggled in the polls, and many in the CDU/CSU bloc thought they had a better chance of winning the election with Söder as their candidate.

The chaos within the ruling party has also reflected its performance in the polls. The CDU surged to almost 40 per cent last year as voters rewarded it for Germany’s deft handling of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

But its approval rating has slumped in 2021 as public anger mounted over the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccinations and the revelation that some MPs earned huge commissions on deals to procure face masks.

The CDU also faces a strong challenge from the opposition Greens, which some pollsters believed could take the chancellery in the election. The party chose Annalena Baerbock, a 40-year-old MP, as its candidate for chancellor, in a smooth process that marked a sharp contrast with the open power struggle in the CDU/CSU.

The son of a miner, Laschet studied law and edited a Catholic newspaper before being elected to the Bundestag in 1994. He served as a minister in the government of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, in the 1990s and became prime minister there in 2017.

Laschet is an ideological ally of Merkel and has said that if elected chancellor, he would continue her middle-of-the-road policies. He was long considered her natural successor.

But his popularity has suffered over the course of the pandemic, when he has come across as hesitant and erratic. By contrast, Söder, who earned a reputation as a decisive crisis manager, has seen his polling soar.

The poll ratings of Markus Söder, prime minister of Bavaria, had soared, but he said he would respect the CDU executive committee’s decision ahead of the vote © Reuters

Laschet was endorsed on Monday by some of the CDU’s most influential grandees, such as Wolfgang Schäuble, the former finance minister and Bundestag president, Volker Bouffier, prime minister of the western state of Hesse, and Ralph Brinkhaus, leader of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group.

But other members of the executive, such as Peter Altmaier, economy minister and a close Merkel ally, favoured Söder, a move that will badly dent Laschet’s authority.

The prime ministers of Saxony-Anhalt and Saarland also broke ranks with Laschet in recent days and threw their weight behind Söder, saying he enjoyed far more support among the party’s rank-and-file members. The powerful youth wing of the CDU, the Junge Union, also backed the Bavarian.

Söder garnered support among many CDU MPs who fear they will lose their seats in September if Laschet leads the campaign.

Some attendees of Monday’s meeting said the CDU/CSU parliamentary group and regional party bosses should be involved in any decision on who should run for chancellor.

But Laschet insisted that only the executive could decide and demanded a vote to resolve the issue. “We should decide today, as we planned to at the beginning,” he said, according to participants.

Söder made clear he would respect the CDU executive’s decision, telling reporters this week he had made the party a proposal “but only the CDU can decide if it wants to accept this offer”.



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After Afghanistan, China and Russia will test Biden

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“America is back” proclaimed Joe Biden, a few weeks ago. But in Afghanistan, America is out. The US president has just announced the withdrawal of all remaining American troops from the country. A 20-year war will end on the symbolic date of 9/11, 2021.

The watching world will wonder if a gap is emerging between White House rhetoric about re-engagement with the world, and a reality of continuing retreat. Biden insists that this is not the case. He argues that America has achieved its counter-terrorism aims in Afghanistan and now intends to “fight the battles for the next 20 years, not the last 20”.

But perception matters. The danger is that the pullout from Afghanistan will be seen outside America as a Vietnam-like failure that could eventually lead to the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, a replay of the fall of Saigon to North Vietnam in 1975.

Rival powers, in particular Russia and China, could now be emboldened to test the Biden administration’s resolve a little further. The obvious flashpoints are Ukraine and Taiwan. In recent weeks, the Kremlin has assembled more troops on its border with Ukraine than at any time since 2014 when Russia grabbed Crimea. Last week, China sent a record number of military jets into Taiwanese airspace. Both countries are combining military muscle-flexing with warlike rhetoric.

Biden himself has used confrontational language with Russia and China. He has called Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, a killer and his administration has branded China’s actions in Xinjiang a genocide. The US also recently imposed sanctions on Russian and Chinese officials and has eased restrictions on American officials meeting their Taiwanese counterparts.

The strategic situation in Asia and Europe is similar in one key respect. The US has expressed strong support for both Taiwan and Ukraine, but neither country enjoys an explicit American security guarantee. The US relies on a policy of “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan. The idea is that China should understand there is a strong chance that the US would fight to defend Taiwan, without a firm promise being made. In a similar way, the US has never spelt out what it would do if Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Although Taiwan and Ukraine are separated by thousands of miles and involve different antagonists, the two stand-offs feel connected. Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to Nato, believes that: “Moscow and Beijing will look closely at how we react in one situation to set the stage for the other.” Daalder argues that “we need greater strategic clarity on what we would do if Russia moved militarily against Ukraine, or China on Taiwan”.

There are voices in the US calling for America to now make an explicit security guarantee to Taiwan, and for Nato to accelerate the process that would allow Ukraine to join its alliance. The hope is that these moves would deter Moscow and Beijing, and so reduce the risk of war starting by miscalculation. The argument against these policy changes is that China and Russia may interpret them as a threatening shift in the status quo — and feel compelled to respond. American allies in Asia and Europe may also feel that explicit security guarantees for Taiwan and Ukraine are too provocative. The joint statement issued by Biden and Yoshihide Suga, the Japanese prime minister, after a meeting last week, stressed the importance of peace in the Taiwan Strait, but remained vague about how Washington and Tokyo might respond if conflict broke out.

It would obviously be particularly difficult for the Biden administration to respond to simultaneous crises over Taiwan and Ukraine. Some western strategists are concerned that Moscow and Beijing may be co-ordinating their actions, to maximise the pressure on the Biden administration. They point to an increase in the frequency of high-level meetings between the Russian and Chinese governments. Beijing and Moscow also made statements, after a recent meeting between their foreign ministers, which signalled a deepening of their strategic relationship and a more open rejection of a western-led world order.

The internal situations in Russia and China may also be raising the dangers of conflict. Putin recently imprisoned Alexei Navalny, the most popular and dangerous opposition leader he has ever faced. Navalny is currently on hunger strike and may soon die, sparking further protests. The Kremlin knows that conflict over Ukraine boosted Putin’s popularity back in 2014. Another small war may look like a tempting option.

As the Chinese Communist party prepares to celebrate the centenary of its foundation later this year, President Xi Jinping may be looking for a triumph over Taiwan. American officials believe that Xi and his advisers have convinced themselves that the US is in deep and terminal decline. They fear that the Chinese leadership may believe the US would ultimately back down rather than fight over Taiwan.

But even the most confident and nationalistic officials in Beijing and Moscow will still be conscious of the risks of head-on confrontation over Taiwan and Ukraine. The likelihood is that Russia and China will continue to use “grey zone” tactics that stop just short of all-out conflict. As America discovered in Afghanistan, it is much easier to start a war than to control its outcome.

gideon.rachman@ft.com



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