This week's big questions: Is Islamism a threat? And should we fear Romney or Boris?

An Oxford historian says that the terrorist threat can be exaggerated, and that academic potential is an important signifier

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It’s 23 years since the fatwa on Salman Rushdie. Do versions of Islamism still pose a serious threat to the West?

There are small extremist Islamist groups that want to attack the West, but since 9/11 we have often exaggerated the dangers they pose. Most Islamist parties are focused on domestic politics, and if they are anti-Western it is largely because the United States has pursued a counterproductive foreign policy in the region – supporting unpopular, autocratic regimes, doing little to moderate Israel’s defensive aggressiveness, and launching two disastrous wars. A change in US behaviour in the Middle East would do a lot to defuse remaining threats from radical groups, both within and outside Europe.


Would President Romney be a good thing for the US and the world?

He would be terrible for both. His recipe of tax cuts, bank deregulation and rolling back the state is precisely what brought about the crisis of 2008. Meanwhile, his calls for austerity could pitch the US economy into another recession, which would be bad for all of us. He is a throwback to the ideologically rigid laissez-faire Republican presidents of the 1920s whose policies helped bring about the Wall Street crash and the global Great Depression. He is also becoming sabre-rattlingly neo-conservative on foreign policy. This is the stuff of nightmares.


Should “academic merit” be the only criterion for entry to university?

Only if “merit” means academic potential, as well as achievement. Universities should be making allowances for young people who can do well, but whose social or educational disadvantages have held them back. Of course, it does not help anybody if universities admit students who cannot cope with the courses. However, in many countries academics use alternative tests to find able students who have not done well in school exams, and research shows that those students flourish – before and especially after graduation. Independent schools provide 15 per cent of A‑level entries and scoop a massive 29 per cent of the A grades. It seems highly unlikely that the children of the wealthy should be so much more academically able than those of the less privileged.


Do EU nations need to form a political union to save the euro?

Ultimately, yes. Without some supranational European “state” with democratic legitimacy, electorates in the wealthy north will resent subsidies to the indebted south, and the debtors will resist Eurocrat demands to reform their economies. But I cannot imagine a genuine political union in the near future. Far from encouraging European unity, the euro has been a divisive force. Germany can keep the show on the road for a little longer by pursuing a less austere economic policy. But the most likely outcome is a euro break-up, with a smaller currency union surviving in Germany, probably France and a few others. The euro is not that different from the 1920s gold standard: indebted countries could recover only once they had escaped the rigid single currency.


Do we need a third  runway at Heathrow?

The case seems very weak to me. I have to declare an interest: I grew up near Heathrow under one of the flight paths, and you never get used to the noise. But that aside, I am persuaded by those who argue that there are intelligent ways of getting more out of our existing capacity – in other London airports, and Heathrow itself. The Heathrow third-runway campaign looks like a classic example of self-interested corporate lobbying. If we are so worried about competing with our economic rivals, why aren’t we upgrading our creaking railway system? That would be the environmentally sensitive route.


Would Boris Johnson be a better prime minister than David Cameron?

Yes, but only marginally. Boris outdoes even Flashman Cameron in his lack of seriousness and poor attention to detail, so we’d probably see even more cock-ups than we do now. However, he is a populist who needs to be liked; he is less complacent than our born-to-rule PM and Chancellor. If he were PM, I doubt he would have continued this disastrous austerity policy for so long. He would have announced a U-turn in his faux-bumbling way – and probably got away with it.


David Priestland teaches history at Oxford University. His ‘Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power’ is published by Allen Lane