Why David Cameron is wrong about radicalisation and multiculturalism

Under the pernicious influence of Michael Gove and other neoconservatives, the Prime Minister is sin

Michael Gove has won. Late last month, writing in the Spectator, the Telegraph's chief political commentator, Peter Oborne, drew our attention to the "neconservative" faction inside the Conservative-led government:

This section of the coalition also takes a hard line on domestic security arrangements, supporting control orders and the divisive Prevent strategy for confronting its special interpretation of the Islamic terror threat. Its key cabinet supporters include George Osborne, Liam Fox, Oliver Letwin, Michael Gove (whose book Celsius 7/7 sought to define the domestic war on terror with astonishing success) and, crucially, the Home Secretary, Theresa May. Baroness Neville-Jones, the one-time Whitehall spook who sits on the fancily named Security Council, is another well-placed though bone-headed supporter.

Oborne singled out Nick Clegg, the Conservative Party chairman, Sayeeda Warsi, and the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, as members of a smaller, rival faction of "One-Nation Tories and ineffectual Liberal Democrats". I would add Ken Clarke to this list.

But where does David Cameron, the Prime Minister, fit into all this? There have been reports over the years that the Tory leader has been torn between the neocons and the One-Nation types. In a much-discussed speech in September 2008, Cameron described himself as a "liberal Conservative, not a neoconservative". And a year and a half earlier, writing in the Observer of 13 May 2007 (in a piece entitled "What I learned from my stay with a Muslim family"), the then leader of the opposition rejected the Gove-esque obsession with "Islamism" and warned against the dangers of reckless rhetoric:

We must also be careful about the language we use . . . Our efforts are not helped by lazy use of language. Indeed, by using the word "Islamist" to describe the threat, we actually help do the terrorist ideologues' work for them.

But this morning's speech to the Munich Security Conference suggests that Gove has won the battle for the Prime Minister's heart and mind. In the middle of a speech that addressed segregation, radicalisation and "the doctrine of state multiculturalism", Cameron declared:

We need to be absolutely clear on where the origins of these terrorist attacks lie – and that is the existence of an ideology, "Islamist extremism".

He went on to argue:

Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism.

Strong stuff. To be honest, the content of Cameron's speech should have come as no surprise to us, as it has been trailed for weeks. And in recent days, I'm told, the Prime Minister has had meetings with Maajid Nawaz, the director of the "counter-extremism think tank" the Quilliam Foundation, which takes a hard line on engaging with so-called Islamists. (On a side note, Nawaz has a piece in this week's New Statesman on the revolt in Egypt and his own experiences as a prisoner in Hosni Mubarak's jails.)

Here are some of my thoughts on the speech, in no particular order:

1) How is this new, original or different? As I said, much of the Cameron speech fits in with a pre-existing, long-standing Gove/Quilliam/neoconservative agenda. And how is the "muscular liberalism" approach any different from the Tony Blair/John Reid/Charles Clarke/Hazel Blears approach? Cameron, for example, condemns those "soft-left" groups that "lump all Muslims together, compiling a list of grievances and arguing if only governments addressed them, this terrorism would stop". But so, too, did Blair. The former PM was as keen to hector Muslim groups about "integration" and "British values" as the current PM.

2) Perhaps Warsi should have a word with her party leader. Her recent speech on this subject may have been shown to No 10 in advance and Cameron's speech may have been shown in advance to the Conservative Party chair but Warsi and Cameron are now on different sides of this debate. The Tory peer, for example, condemned the media for dividing Muslims into "moderate" and "extremist" camps; the Prime Minister's provocative speech prompted this particularly odious headline in the Telegraph: "Muslims must embrace our British values, David Cameron says". (Why "odious"? Because it implies that the majority of Muslims don't embrace basic "British values" and aren't integrated, which, as Cameron knows, and I can attest, isn't true.)

3) We can have a debate on another day about whether a "doctrine of state multiculturalism" even exists, let alone whether or not it has "failed", but the key point here is to stress that the debate over multiculturalism has little to do with the debate over extremism and radicalisation. The two should be kept separate. Terrorism is a political problem; not a cultural problem. Extremists, violent or otherwise, come in all shapes and sizes, all colours and creeds. The English Defence League (see point five, below) is, in my view, made up of violent extremists and yet they are not a product of "multiculturalism", failed or otherwise. Some of the most high-profile terrorists in recent years have been "integrated" Muslims. Take Mohammad Sidique Khan, the ringleader of the London bombings in July 2005. He was a teaching assistant who impressed parents, colleagues and pupils at the school where he worked. As a teenager, he called himself "Sid" and spent most of his time playing football with white kids. Then there are the white, British-born people who convert to Islam and become terrorists, like Nicky Reilly or Oliver Savant – are they unaware of, or unfamiliar with, British values? Would teaching them to speak English help secure our airports or railway stations?

4) Cameron supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, as Prime Minister, is overseeing an ongoing, futile and brutal war in Afghanistan. He has said little about the devastating Israeli/Egyptian blockade of Gaza. These foreign policy issues tend to be drivers of extremism and radicalisation. Don't believe me? As I pointed out on the Guardian's Comment Is Free site last July:

At the 12th and final public hearing of the 9/11 commission on 16 June 2004 in Washington, DC, a phalanx of senior law-enforcement and intelligence officials from the US government arrived to offer their testimonies. "You've looked [at] and examined the lives of these people as closely as anybody . . . What have you found out about why these men did what they did?" asked Lee Hamilton, the former congressman and vice-chair of the commission. "What motivated them to do it?"

The answers to these questions were provided by supervisory special agent James Fitzgerald of the FBI. "I believe they feel a sense of outrage against the United States," he said. "They identify with the Palestinian problem, they identify with people who oppose repressive regimes and I believe they tend to focus their anger on the United States."

No mention of religion. No mention of Islam. No mention of virgins in heaven, 72 or otherwise. For the lead investigators into the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, politics, not faith, was the key motivating factor. Terrorism, as even that notorious Islamist-baiter Martin Amis once conceded, "is political communication by other means".

5) The timing of Cameron's speech is awful. It comes on a day on which the far-right English Defence League is marching in Luton in protest against Islam. As Nick Lowles, editor of Searchlight, writes, "What began as a street movement to oppose Islamic fundamentalism has broadened its target to the religion itself." He adds: "The EDL protest is likely to further alienate the Muslim community. Many Muslims will be more nervous; others are likely to be attracted by the extremist message peddled by Anjem Choudary and his Islam4UK group."

Yet Cameron did not spare a single one of the 2,476 words in his speech for the EDL – or for other far-right groups such as the BNP. He mentioned the word "Islamophobia" just once and that, too, in passing. As Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadan Foundation points out:

On the day we see fascists marching in Luton, we have seen no similar condemnation or leadership shown from the government.

Muslims and Muslim organisations, as the former Met police officer Robert Lambert argues on the Staggers blog, have a crucial role to play in the struggle against home-grown extremism and in the battle for the hearts and minds of young, angry, alienated Muslims. Cameron's simplistic speech has done more harm than good, and so have the predictable and depressing newspaper headlines that it provoked. It is a step backward rather than forward.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.