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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.