The royals: bigger than Mao

Prince Philip nears the height of the Oxo Tower; Andrew’s teeth are the size of windows.

They went up slowly, one by one. First, a toothy Andrew, then Charles, smug in his uniform like a kid who’s raided the dressing-up box, and finally the smiling Queen in hat and gloves.

From the Thames-side, seventh-floor windows of the New Statesman offices, the staff of this historically republican magazine watched as a giant, black-and-white image of the monarchy in its preferred pose – grinning from a balcony – was uploaded to the front of Sea Containers House, the building across the river from our own. The image, taken during the Silver Jubilee celebrations, covers the entire block (70 by 100 metres). Prince Philip nears the height of the Oxo Tower; Andrew’s teeth are the size of windows.

From certain angles the photograph seems to fill the sky, so that as you walk down John Carpenter Street (on which our office resides) Charles’s buckles and medals bear down on you like a flashback from a very British sort of nightmare, or an oddly patriotic alien invasion.

The picture is far larger than the portrait of Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square. (I know this reference is unfair in implication but I use it simply to make the comparison with other giant, two-dimensional images in public spaces. Thank you.) It resembles a sloganless advert and if we weren’t in such a disconcertingly royalist moment, you might think it was a parody or the work of an anarchic artist whose next step is elaborate defacement – the urge to draw a fake moustache on Charles is almost overwhelming.

Banana man

But it’s in earnest. The image will act as a backdrop to the Jubilee “river pageant”. The Queen – resplendent on a barge – will, on 3 June, drift past the flag-flutterers and gaze at herself, magnified. She will have had little say in the matter, such is the strangeness of her position. Nor will she have had much sway over the swarm of Jubilee-themed tat that now surrounds us. I don’t mind the celebrations and I admire the doggedness of someone doing an awful job uncomplainingly for 60 years but I resent every corporation in the land trying to muscle in. The monarchy is part of the structure of our state: an expensive, unelected element.

But who cares, when you can make a buck? The Jubilee is trendy, part of our love affair with the 1950s, “vintage” and distressed wood (rush to John Lewis for a Ben Sherman Union Jack vintage print belt, £35, or Very.co.uk for a vintage Union Jack shower curtain, £11). Residents of east London are holding bunting-strewn street parties to simulate one of those sepia-tinted photos they like to collect because they’ve got that vibe, because things from an era when this postwar, grief-stricken country was just coming out of rationing are suddenly bang on trend.

I don’t understand it: this sugary nostalgia for an innocence that never was. For anyone similarly bemused, there’s something to look forward to: the dismantling of the giant riverside image, which will inevitably involve Charles being slowly peeled off the front of Sea Containers House like a banana skin from its fruit.

"Andrew’s teeth are the size of windows." Photograph: Getty Images.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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.