We can overcome the deranged fanatics of al-Qa'ida
Sir: Why do most of your correspondents cling to the notion that we are under threat from terrorists because of the war in Iraq? Al-Qa'ida was performing its murderous business around the world long before then. Indeed, 9/11 happened because the world had not taken its threats seriously enough.
The ghastly events in Madrid are, sadly, only the most recent manifestation and, terrible as they are for the victims, they should be kept in perspective. There have always been plagues, epidemics, disasters and wars which affect civilised society and have to be overcome. This present problem with fanatical terrorism should be viewed as such.
Around 10 people are killed on our roads plus another 50-odd badly injured every day yet nobody gets in a panic. People cope with it as an unfortunate fact of our Western way of life. We survived 30 years of IRA terrorism and emerged far better able to handle it. Ninety-eight per cent of our population survived the horrors of the Second World War and we emerged a more mature, equable and tolerant society.
The present problem is no different. We are are quite capable of doing whatever it takes to endure, survive and ultimately overcome the murderous activities of a few hundred deranged fanatics and the vast majority of the population will never come within 10 miles of a terrorist outrage.
We need our editors in the media to concentrate their efforts much more on what we all need to do to counter and overcome this menace instead of fanning the flames of controversy and generating unwarranted hysteria merely in order to gain some small political advantage, sell a few more copies or boost their viewer ratings a couple of per cent. It really is time to dig up a bit of our long-forgotten British phlegm and dust off our stiff upper lips.
Blair's record at home and abroad
Sir: The Blairites are sinking to new depths of dishonesty. On the one hand they say that anyone who opposes Blair from the left is lining up with the Tories. And on the other hand they accuse opponents of Bush and Blair's war party of helping Bin Laden.
It reminds me of the Cold War years when anyone who put forward anti-capitalist views was accused of being pro-Moscow. Many of us on the left became rather weary of constantly having to repeat that we were opposed both to Western private capitalism and to Stalinist state capitalism.
I refuse to accept that the only alternative to Blair's Tory policies is the Tories' own Tory policies. And I refuse to accept that being opposed to terrorism must mean supporting state terrorism as practised by Blair and George W.
Sir: The concluding paragraph of Johann Hari's article "A simple lesson on schools: Money works" (17 March) reads: "Woodhouse and all the other secondary schools and sixth forms in Britain are waiting." He refers to investment. But it is simply not true. Many are receiving massive investment and have been for some time.
Two of my children attend Calder High School in West Yorkshire, the only "leading edge" school in Yorkshire. This high achievement has not only come about because of the fantastic head teacher and his staff, but because of the phenomenal amount of investment it has received since 1997. The latest manifestation is a brand new state-of-the-art sixth form block.
Three miles to the west of my home, Todmorden High School is having its dilapidated buildings replaced with a brand new school and sixth form. Eight miles to the east of my home Sowerby Bridge High School is receiving the same. Old Victorian building coming down, new light, spacious and highly equipped school going up. I suspect the Calder Valley is not alone in receiving this kind of investment.
Labour investment in public services is working, and of course there is a long way to go, but it is time credit was given where credit is due to this government. Does anyone really believe all the above would have been happening under a Tory government?
Eastwood, West Yorkshire
Sir: Labour opponents of the Iraq war have been urged not to help Michael Howard. I think that those who plunged Britain into an expensive, unlawful, unnecessary war, who lied about its causes and who have no idea of how to deal with its results should bear more responsibility for helping Michael Howard than those who opposed it. Labour supporters should not be blackmailed into supporting a leader who has lost their trust, and that of millions more, and makes no effort to win it back except a public parade of his conscience.
Sir: The Labour Party wants its supporters who opposed the Iraq war nevertheless to support it at the next general election for fear of letting in the Tories. Mr Blair should pack his bags now and leave for his heroic lecture tours in the US, to write his memoirs and to await the judgement of future historians. He should let a new leader emerge in the Labour party who can carry on its undoubted good work in public service provision and who can confront the Tories from the left, rather than the right.
Sir: Tony Blair is worried that those of us who opposed his illegal war in Iraq might not vote for him. Good! We argued, we marched, we wrote to our MPs, but we were ignored because he knew better. Now we will vote for anyone but him, or not vote at all, unless the Labour Party has the good sense to change its leader in the next 12 months.
Sir: Fiona Pitt-Kethley (letter, 16 March) is wrong to assume that her son's bilingualism is related to his age: rather, it is to his circumstances.
Putting a foreign language into the curriculum for seven-year-olds is not going to produce a nation of linguists, any more than teaching maths and English at that age makes children literate and numerate. For the young Pitt-Kethley, English was the language in which he first learned to survive and to control his environment. Now, his survival skills at school require Spanish: without it, he cannot function in the classroom or the playground. The single biggest incentive to language acquisition is necessity. Waiters and shopkeepers abroad acquire English because their livelihoods depend on it. Teenagers do, because the universal language of cinema and pop music is English.
I used to teach at a school which took children from prep schools, who had done French from the age of seven, and from state schools, where they had not learned a language before coming in at eleven. By the time they came to take the first public examination, there was no difference between the two groups, since the overriding factor in their competence was motivation, and how much time they had spent in France.
If we wish our children to acquire a foreign language early, we have first to decide which language they should learn and then make sure they spend time in the country, hear songs and see movies in that language, practise it daily with a native speaker and have friends who speak that language. Then - and then only - they will do as well as the young Pitt-Kethley, and it is wishful thinking to imagine otherwise.
Jews and Muslims
Sir: Lyn Julius's account of Israel's creation will not wash (letter, 9 March). Expulsion of the Palestinians was an integral part of the Zionist programme. Ben Gurion wrote to his son in 1937: "We shall drive them out and take their place." Terrorist acts against Palestinians started long before Israel declared its independence and before the Arab states declared war, as detailed by the Israeli historian Benny Morris.
For centuries, Jews and Muslims in Europe had suffered together under persecution by Christians, who held the Jews collectively guilty of killing the Messiah, and considered Muhammad a diabolical imposter. Successive waves of Jewish refugees had sought refuge in Arab lands, where they were accepted as People of the Book and fellow descendants of Abraham.
The creation of Israel broke this old alliance and brought the destruction of Jewish communities far more ancient than those in which Zionism was hatched. The continuing refusal of European Israelis to integrate into the Middle East is the greatest obstacle to peace.
P J STEWART
Sir: Never have I read in The Independent a rant displaying such blatant nimbyism as Janet Street-Porter's article "Keep these motorised prats off our paths" (18 March).
In the UK there are 120,000 miles of footpaths and bridleways where motorists and motorcyclists cannot go, and 5,000 miles of roads classed as minor unsealed vehicular where we can. Ms Street-Porter's assertion that there is an "unequal battle between walkers and offroaders" is true. It is already unequal in favour of the walkers.
In a democracy all should be able to pursue their chosen pastimes and enthusiasms. One group should not be faced with the threat of being legislated into non-existence.
Sir: Yet again in his Budget the Chancellor has ignored the effect that his high tobacco tax policy has on retailers like myself. It is forcing us out of business as the criminal activity of tobacco smuggling eats into the sales of the corner stores.
Is it any wonder that tobacco smugglers see an opportunity when the Chancellor sets the price of cigarettes in the UK higher than anywhere else in the EU and substantially higher than many countries beyond the EU?
We simply can't compete with the price that smugglers can charge and by his decision on Wednesday the Chancellor has given the green light for smuggling not only to continue but to get worse. As a result, more and more shopkeepers up and down the country will have to cut jobs or go out of business.
The only realistic way to bring tobacco smuggling under control is to cut tobacco tax in the UK so as to bring it more into line with the rest of Europe. Only then will the livelihood of legitimate retailers like myself be safeguarded.
National spokeswoman, Retailers Against Smuggling
Sir: If the Chancellor had announced the sacking of up to 30,000 workers in any other branch of the public service would people be cheering?
I've never met a civil servant who didn't work extremely hard, and I wonder who will be doing their work when they are sacked. For all the populist scoffing, a modern society cannot function without its pen-and-paper pushers.
Could this news be, by any chance, a calculated threat to those many thousands of civil servants paid less than £15,000 a year, who dared to contemplate a strike?
Vote for Hain
Sir: Peter Hain may rue the fact that Labour wins 20 per cent of the vote in Surrey and gets no seats ("Hain attacks first-past-the-post system", 16 March), but his proposal of the Alternative Vote (AV) is not the answer he is looking for.
No form of voting system which elects a single member for each seat (including AV) can be proportional. The change he suggests will have no benefit other than to ensure that the winner in each area at least has the support of more than half of those who vote. The only way to ensure that parties receive the share of seats the electorate wish for them is by changing to a form of proportional representation (PR).
We do note, however, Mr Hain's acceptance of the benefits of preference voting, which gives voters more of a say over who is elected. A combination of preference voting and PR, in the form of the single transferable vote (STV) would be the best of both worlds and we heartily recommend it to him.
Electoral Reform Society
Sir: The advertising industry is also due a visit from the Punctuation Police (letter, 17 March). The poster campaign advertising a Mothering Sunday promotion for a well-known drink reads: "Mum's are special". I'm sure they are, but surely she doesn't need the fact advertising.
Sir: Why is it arrogant to assume that, if democracy takes root in Iraq, it might have an influence on other states in the region (Letter: "New domino theory", 18 March)? Oh, I forgot: it's the new species of racism - dressed up as an understanding of other cultures - that says, in effect, that "Arabs don't do democracy".
Sir: We were both present at an informal press conference at the check point between Gaza and Israel (report, 18 March). The reference to Hamas attributed to John Bercow was in fact made by Shirley Williams and we would be grateful if this could be made clear.
Baroness WILLIAMS OF CROSBY
JOHN BERCOW MP
Shadow Secretary of State for International Development
House of Commons
Sir: I wonder if Mr Blair really thinks of himself as the "guide". (Robert Fisk, 17 March) I suspect he is the "shepherd" and we are sheep who've gone astray.
J C GORDON
Ripon, North Yorkshire