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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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital