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It is not new for political figures to be affected by mental illness – Winston Churchill was famousl

In the light of the recent carnage of the local elections, it is easy to forget that the present government is one of the most successful in history. In 10 years as the chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown never experienced the economic problems he currently faces as prime minister. However, in a decade which was undoubtedly good for business, the Tony Blair premiership was characterised by an approach that contrasts strongly with the no-risk approach to recruitment of many employers in the commercial sector. This can be clearly illustrated by two interviews which appeared in Sunday newspapers on 20th April.

The higher profile of these was the revelation in the Sunday Times that John Prescott had experienced bulimia during his spell as deputy prime minister. The media reaction was almost entirely scornful and can be divided into three camps: those who simply expressed some variant of “Ha – Fatty”; those who were snootily surprised that Prescott’s choice of addictive substance betrayed his working class origins; and those who noted the cynicism in the timing of the announcement, which coincided with the release of an autobiography which gives little attention to other more colourful incidents in Prescott’s life, such as the punch he threw at a protester or the affair with his secretary. The last approach was perhaps more intelligent than the others but, if its protagonists had thought even harder, they might have reflected that, had the story had emerged earlier, his mental illness might have done more damage to his career than either violence or adultery and this would be both unfair and rather disturbing. Commentators were quick to note that Tony Blair converted to Catholicism after leaving office, scared to do more than hint about his religious beliefs to the voters, but they failed to spot a similar pattern in the announcement of his deputy.

The man who decided that “We don’t do God” was Alastair Campbell and, while he did not attempt to hide it, he was equally coy about talking about his history of mental illness before he retired from his post. However, since doing so, he has been dedicating a great deal of energy towards raising awareness of depression, with which he was diagnosed in his late twenties. In particular, he commends Blair for giving him his chance after being elected leader of the Labour Party, even though he was aware of the previous breakdown and Campbell did not yet have the towering reputation he has now. In his interview in the Independent on Sunday on 20th April, he urged other employers to follow this example.

It is not new for political figures to be affected by mental illness – Winston Churchill was famously manic depressive. However, what has changed is the attitude towards using the experience in a productive way to challenge stigma. It was all too much for Churchill’s family when a mental health charity portrayed him in a straightjacket as they figured that he would wish to be seen as a strong leader without any demons. This completely misses the point which is that Churchill does not need to be protected and indeed his reputation weakens any stigma rather than the other way around. Like many others, Campbell says that his depression contributed to his success by making him tougher mentally but this is a romantic view. The reality is simply that mental illness is as common among talented people as among the rest of the population and a good manager makes use of everyone at his disposal. If the Tories win the next election, I hope David Cameron heeds this lesson.

As a child, I was very successful in my schoolwork but found it difficult to make friends. I went to Cambridge University but dropped out after a year due to severe depression and spent most of the next year in a therapeutic community, before returning to Cambridge to complete my degree. I first identified myself as autistic in 1999 while I was studying psychology in London but I was not officially diagnosed until 2004 because of a year travelling in Australia and a great deal of NHS bureaucracy. I spent four years working for the BBC as a question writer for the Weakest Link but I am now studying law with the intention of training to be a solicitor. My hobbies include online poker and korfball, and I will be running the London Marathon in 2007. I now have many friends and I am rarely depressed but I remain single.
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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.