Not Ben's Blog: The Sequel

Old age protesters are driving political dissent in this country

“Try and track down Mark Thomas while I’m away,” said Ben as he departed for the wilds of Cornwall in his Bentley, leaving me to perform the online equivalent of watering the cat and feeding the plants. “And good luck.”

In fact it proved rather easier to locate the elusive comic campaigner than I’d imagined. There he was on stage last Saturday, addressing the crowds that had gathered in Trafalgar Square for the latest anti-war/stop Trident demonstration.

Mark’s best gag was to wonder why we needed a deterrent when the last nuclear assault on this country occured in a central London sushi bar. As he wisely pointed out, any number of Union Jack-stamped warheads can’t counter the polonium-laced tuna and sashimi menace.

Anyway, Mark is back on newstatesman.com this week, inviting you to download a badge (surely a web first?) of the imprisoned Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan.

You should be aware that this could, strictly, count as “glorifying terrorism” after a parliamentary book launch for a collection of Ocalan’s prison writings was banned on just those grounds – but you can always claim it’s Borat, says Mark. Separated at birth? Read the article and make up your own mind.

Back to the subject of Saturday’s march, one thing that struck me was the average age of those on the streets. Public demonstrations are traditionally associated with youthful idealism yet judging by the number of OAPs (old age protesters) I saw, more of those involved had cut their political teeth marching to Aldermaston in the 1960s than on the great anti-war gathering of 2003.

Even the speakers are beginning to show their age. Tony Benn, that sacred totem of the left, recalled that he had first spoken in Trafalgar Square more than half a century ago at the time of that other misconceived British military misadventure, Suez. Livingstone, Galloway and the numerous veterans of Greenham Common are hardly new voices either.

Only Rose Gentle, speaking eloquently and emotionally about the death of her soldier son, Gordon, in Iraq, ensured the day did not simply become a nostalgic tribute to a golden age of leftie activism.

None of this is to belittle the efforts of those present or their contribution to the long and illustrious history of protest in this country, but it is to wonder where the next generation of political campaigners will come from. Four years ago Ms. Dynamite represented the yoof voice, but now even she is nowhere to be seen.

Anyway, the Stop the War coalition has now hit on a fairly desperate scheme to try to engage the iPod generation, urging peace campaigners to download a new version of Edwin Starr’s classic “War (What is it good for?)” purporting to be by Ugly Rumours, Tony Blair’s former musical collaborators.

“Tony Blair’s band is back – You can send the Prime Minister into the charts,” says the website hopefully.

Even the song is old. And as if the kids care who's No. 1 in the pop charts anymore anyway.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.