Immigration, immigration, immigration: Mehdi Hasan on Cameron's speech

Cameron’s speech is lazy, ill-informed and inflammatory.

From Munich to Hampshire. David Cameron's speech in front of a Conservative audience later this morning will argue that immigration "threatens our way of life", in the non-inflammatory headline of the Torygraph. (You can read the full text by clicking here.)

There are (obvious? cynical? valid?) questions about the timing and tone of the speech. Is this a tactic to divert attention from the coalition's blunders on NHS reform and the nurses' attack on the hapless Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley? Did the Prime Minister's earlier denunciation of Oxford University's manifest failure to admit black students provide him with the requisite "cover" to take a potshot at immigrants? Is his (renewed) focus on forced marriages and English lessons a legitimate and proportionate intervention in a vital area of public policy or a crude dog-whistle to the Tory right and BNP-type voters? I'll leave you to make up your own minds (below the line?) but I can't help but note this tweet from ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie:

Increasingly nervous about core Tory vote, Cameron makes immigration speech

Hmm. That's very "responsible" of him. Perhaps the most frustrating and irritating claim that the PM makes in the speech is that Labour ministers "closed down discussion" of immigration. Yawn. As I noted in a post for Comment Is Free during the general election campaign last year:

One of the hardiest myths in British public life is that there is a conspiracy of silence on immigration. Liberals and leftists, it is alleged, have banded together to prevent debate or discussion of "mass immigration" into the UK, caused by Labour's "open-door" policies.

Really? Tell that to the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the BBC, Channel 4, Michael Howard, Phil Woolas, MigrationWatch – the list is endless.

And in an excellent and informative post this morning, Sunder Katwala of the Fabians says:

The idea that debate about immigration has been silenced and closed down in Britain is a pervasive myth.

But, as a matter of fact, it can be easily disproved if one goes and looks at what politicians said and did throughout the period, or reviewing the endless noisy public debates about immigration, and volumes of legislation on immigration (broadly in a restrictive direction) under almost every postwar government, whether Conservative or Labour. I published a Comment Is Free post, "The Enoch myth", in 2008, offering chapter and verse, which proves beyond any reasonable doubt just how noisy these decades of supposed silenced debate always were. (Cameron, perhaps prey to the myth, says in his speech: "I remember when immigration wasn't a central political issue in our country – and I want that to be the case again." I wonder if he could cite any five- or ten-year postwar period which he has in mind when he claims that?)

It is interesting to reflect on the drivers of the sense of political disconnection which means that this is widely believed but that is a very different thing from the myth being true.

Cameron directly echoes Michael Howard's election posters in 2005, which proved somewhat less effective than the Conservatives hoped at the time, and which had the rather odd aim of starting a debate about immigration which will not be distracted by allegations of racism by starting a debate about racism and being silenced, rather more than to start a frank and rational public debate about immigration itself.

It was rather odd to claim that the other major party was treating all discussion of immigration as verboten – because I clearly recall that Labour had election posters in 2005 which proclaimed in bold, primary colours "Your Country's Border's Safe", and it would be to rewrite history rather spectacularly to claim that Labour home secretaries such as Jack Straw or David Blunkett did not speak about immigration.

But, let's be honest, or "frank", as the Prime Minister likes to say: this isn't about immigration. This is about Cameron.

As Anthony Painter notes over at LabourList:

David Cameron is in trouble. And when he's in trouble, he panics and presses the race, identity, welfare and immigration buttons.

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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.