A university lecture. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images
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If there’s one thing young people detect in their elders, it’s the urinous tang of hypocrisy

Although I’d heard this debate rumbling on in the background since the 7/7 bombings, I never really considered what its impact might be on young and impressionable minds.

On 2 February a crowd of maddened professors wrote to the Guardian to protest against the government’s latest counterterrorism and security bill, which was being hustled through parliament with unseemly haste. The larval bill has now emerged from its neo-Gothic chrysalis to become a beautifully inelegant act. What the professors were so crazy about are the provisions in Section 5 that place an obli­gation on their universities to assist the police and security services in monitoring extremism. In fact, the so-called Prevent strategy has been in place and affecting universities for over a decade. It has hitherto been incumbent on universities that have been signed up to the strategy to allow the state authorities access to relevant computer data, including students’ emails and web history. Now that requirement will become universal and mandatory.

The maddened crowd of professors sought to remind our legislators that academic freedom is enshrined in the Education Act 1986, which places an obligation on universities to “ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and visiting speakers”. Those ludicrous Branestawms seemed to think there was some conflict between the law on the statute book and the new legislation. In fact, any British student who’s a member of a group affiliated to Fosis (the Federation of Student Islamic Societies) is almost certainly under some kind of surveillance; not – as regular readers of this column will know – that I regard this as being particularly intrusive, given that the secret affairs of HMG are more often typified by egregious cock-up than by effective conspiracy.

Nevertheless, as a Muslim student recently put it to me, “I came to university believing that I was going to be educated in the Socratic method: that there’d be no bounds on what could be thought or said, and that this was an integral aspect of the inquiry.” No, really, this is pretty much verbatim – and I was tempted to reply: “With eloquence like that at your disposal you hardly need what passes for a higher education nowadays.” But of course I didn’t, because the truth of the matter is that although I’d heard this debate rumbling on in the background since the 7/7 bombings, I never really considered what its impact might be on young and impressionable minds.

The nub of the problem is that if the aim of Prevent is to, um, prevent young people from thinking extremist thoughts, then any course of study that encourages them to consider extremist viewpoints is, ipso facto, against the law. But if the aim of Prevent is to encourage our espoused values – such as tolerance for different viewpoints, critical thinking and democratic accountability – then precisely such a course of study must be mandated. This catch-22 epitomises our confused and paradoxical thinking about the threat that Islamist extremism represents to our society. (And I say “our society” advisedly: the threat Islamism represents to people in, say, Raqqa, is entirely different.) At a White House conference on extremism and terrorism on 18 February, Barack Obama bloviated: “We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam,” and added: “No religion is responsible for terrorism – people are responsible for violence and terrorism.”

It’s difficult to know how to unpick this conceptual tangle, but one place to begin might be to say: OK, clearly nobody can be “at war” with an abstraction such as religion (or “drugs”, for that matter) but surely we can agree that religious ideas are present in the disturbing ideological gallimaufry of Islamist extremism? Well, no, not if you’re a western policymaker, because to acknow­ledge that religious beliefs can be a prime political mover is to lend them the very sort of credence they claim to represent. In the States, where millions of voters regard their religious beliefs as precisely that, Obama’s words must induce still more cognitive dissonance into the collective consciousness; yet for both him and our own rather more secular leaders, “politicising” the militants doesn’t help either. After all, to concede that the terrorists may have political aims is implicitly to acknowledge that Muslim communities – both in the Middle East and globally – may have justifiable grievances.

And so the whole sad, sorry go-round of equivocation-masquerading-as-moral-certainty continues. Fatally compromised by its own historic compromise between religion and politics (as if the two could ever be entirely decoupled), the west continues to substitute paranoia for the quality most needed to combat extremism: belief. Belief and, dare I say it, nerve. We need to believe in just those values of tolerance, openness and free speech that the new act so clearly vitiates; and we need the nerve to maintain such beliefs in the face of threats against them. Naturally, if we western secularists could admit to ourselves that our own values are articles of faith rather than demonstrable truths we would probably have more success with the young and impressionable crowd of potential jihadists. They may not all be as acute as the student I spoke to, but if there’s one thing young people detect in their elders – and one thing that repels them from their elders’ values – it’s a urinous tang of hypocrisy, such as hangs over a crowd of MPs as they rush through a division lobby.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Russia vs the west

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.