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Leader: From believing in absurdities to committing atrocities

The most shocking thing about Breivik is how many people agree with his opinions.

How should a free society respond to terror? After the attacks of 11 September 2001, the US and the UK curtailed civil liberties to a degree unprecedented in peacetime, insisting that there was a trade-off to be made between liberty and security. But Norway, where the far-right terrorist Anders Breivik murdered 77 civilians last July, offers a different model. While Tony Blair declared that “the rules of the game have changed” after the 7 July 2005 bombings in London, the Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, confronted by an even greater atrocity, insisted that the rules remained the same. After Breivik’s massacre, Stoltenberg promised “more democracy, more openness and greater political participation”. This week, as Breivik’s trial opened in an Oslo courtroom, a short distance from the site of his car bomb attack, his country fulfilled that pledge.

Breivik, the biggest mass murderer in Norway’s recent history, is on trial in the normal way and accorded the same rights as other criminal defendants, including the right to address the court. That he has used this as an opportunity to hold forth on the “Islamisation” of Norway and the evils of immigration has not diminished the country’s commitment to due process. The Norwegian judiciary has made every effort to avoid jeopardising Breivik’s right to a fair trial. A lay judge who posted a comment last year on Facebook calling for Breivik to receive the death penalty was dismissed on the grounds that the statements “may weaken trust in his impartiality”. There have been notably few calls from voters to revise the maximum statutory penalty of 21 years imprisonment (a sentence that can be renewed at five-year intervals) and polls show that just 16 per cent support the reinstatement of capital punishment.

Such liberalism is all the more admirable from a population, which, owing to its small size (five million), was irrevocably scarred by the murders. One in four Norwegians knew, or knew of, one or more of the victims. On a per capita basis, Norway lost twice as many people that day as the US did on 9/11. In his opening remarks to the court, Breivik did not deny responsibility for the deaths of 77 people. Rather, he claimed that this was an act of “self-defence” against the “state traitors” who opened Norway to multiculturalism.

It is convenient for some to dismiss Breivik’s views as the ramblings of a mad narcissist and a psychopath. But strip away his more outlandish rhetoric and there is little to separate them from those frequently expressed on the pages of the conservative press. It was Breivik’s actions, rather than his beliefs, that distinguished him from other right-wing ideologues. His tropes of choice – the rise of “Eurabia”, the insidious influence of “cultural Marxism” – will be familiar to anyone who has read the work of Melanie Phillips or Mark Steyn, two of the writers cited in Breivik’s manifesto. The neoconservative author Norman Podhoretz titled his work on “Eurabia” World War IV. Breivik merely pursued such ideas to their extreme conclusion. As Voltaire wrote, “those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities”.

Even now, supposedly mainstream figures encourage the beliefs that animate fanatics such as Breivik. In France, fighting for re-election as president, Nicolas Sarkozy has run a shamelessly demagogic campaign, indulging anxieties over immigration and the influence of Islam in a desperate attempt to win over the supporters of the National Front’s Marine Le Pen. He has argued that there are “too many foreigners” in France and has vowed to ban halal meat from state schools. In Britain, much of the mainstream press continues to treat Muslims as an alien force, fuelling Islamophobia through misinformation and distortion. So long as this remains the case, the rhetoric of those same publications that express horror at Breivik’s behaviour – his fascist salute, his absence of regret – will be seized on by more of his kind. 

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.