Addicted to Base

Guest blogger Hamer reflects on the "national gnashing of teeth" that took place last week over a fo

The national gnashing of teeth that took place last week over a fourteen stone eight year old was as predictable as it was entertaining. Not that I find the boy’s circumstances funny; merely the reactions to them.

Amid the thinly veiled snobbery that’s always given an airing on occasions like this – well, those working class people are a bit think aren’t they?

Lord knows that healthy eating isn’t exactly rocket science – was a fascinating dichotomy. When debates about “responsibility” are under way in the national media there are certain groups within society that think that such terms apply to the likes of the eight year old kid and his mother, but not to them. We’re middle class, you know; our penne is ethically sourced and we keep our front porches clean. We don’t have responsibilities.

Well, actually, you do. As I approach my nine hundredth year of working as a bag-carrier to a Member of Parliament it never ceases to amaze me the casually contemptuous attitude that many people hold - not only politicians but representative democracy as a whole.

You only need to look at the letters page of the Daily Mail or the trendy lefty frothings on Comment is Free to read a depressingly familiar mirror-image of what a large number of MPs receive in their post bags everyday. “We never see you around here,” they write to say to their unfortunate Member, who probably hasn’t seen his or her family all weekend because they've been holding surgery after surgery. “I’ve voted for the [insert] Party all my life, but you have betrayed us over [insert issue]. Either you sort it out or you lose my vote”.

This, often, is the sole contribution that many people have with the political system: the exercising of their “rights”. The constant demands become rather wearing at times, especially when the only recommendation MPs read of themselves is the lazy-politicians-snouts-in-the-trough-what-have-they-done-for-me-lately analysis so beloved of people who see the state as a kind of sweet shop to which they are entitled to unlimited credit.

There’s rarely any sense that democracy is a reciprocal relationship where they have a duty to act as citizens rather than consumers, to hold their elected representatives to account. Not in the lazy way of the Question Time audience (and occasionally celebrity panel members) that dismisses all politicians as “liars” or, more recently “numpties”. It gets an approving round of applause, but it’s a hollow, meaningless response to a supposed deeper hunger amongst the electorate: the desire to be engaged.

As various middle-class nutritionists and self-appointed experts were so keen to tell us last week, healthy satisfaction is consequent upon a little work and preparation. A healthy democracy is just the same; it requires getting involved with your local community, taking an active part in the local school through the PTA, trying to understand the issues and conflicting views and pressures on the various actors, be they politicians, parents, residents, or teachers. Occasionally it means recognising that your individual good might not be the same as the common good, and that when politicians don’t do precisely as you want – which is pretty impossible when each constituency contains up to 72,000 voters all with a different idea as to what the best solution is – it’s democracy, not betrayal.

That’s not to say that politicians get it right all the time but when that happens, screaming at them harpy-like and then disengaging completely in a sulk is not the answer. The free market theory of democracy holds that we get the politicians we deserve and, as many loftily informed the unfortunate eight-year old’s parents, the battle to ensure that our system works well is what we grown ups like to call “personal responsibility”.

The popular model of society shouldn’t be “them” and “us”, and in an era when politicians are more desperate than ever before to actually get involved in communities and affect social change, to accuse them of perpetrating this perceived separateness speaks of the kind of laziness that blames McDonalds for our bulging waistlines. Yes, it is easy, damned tasty, and ultimately empty calories but you have a choice to eat it or not. And if you do, screaming at the manager of your local fast food chain that it’s not your fault you’re a lardy git is only going to generate limited sympathy.

So we should all stop cramming our faces with burgers and quick-fixes, whilst blaming somebody else for our obesity, whether that obesity is physical or metaphorical. Viewing the service politicians provide as a “right” whilst failing to engage in the “responsibility” of being an active citizen and participant in the state does not make for good democracy and blaming your lazy so-called disillusionment on somebody else smacks of the kind of lack of responsibility we were all so keen to mock in the mother of the unfortunate eight year old boy. Lord knows, it’s not exactly rocket science.

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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.