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Memo to left and right: please stop generalising about the looters

The debate about the riots is being hijacked by those who want to push partisan agendas and narratives.

Some on the left -- including Ken Livingstone, Harriet Harman and Seumas Milne -- have been accused of resorting to knee-jerk, ideological, socio-economic explanations for the recent outburst of violence and vandalism in our cities and towns. It's too simplistic to blame the "cuts" or "poverty" or "racism", say their critics on the right. Indeed it is.

But what of the right's own knee-jerk and ideological explanations for the riots? In today's Daily Mail, for example, Melanie Phillips -- who else? -- rails against Britain's "liberal intelligentsia" and fumes about the "feral children" behind this week's riots. The standfirst (not available in the online version) sums her argument (if you can call it that!):

"Breakdown of the family. Single mothers. Soft justice. Drugs. Multiculturalism. Welfare. Educational failure . . . We're now paying the price."

Simple, eh? But as the Times's crime editor, Sean O'Neill, tweeted earlier this afternoon: "The stories coming out of the magistrates courts say very clearly that this is not all about 'feral youth'."

The fact is that not all of the accused rioters and looters are members of the so-called underclass. The Sun says on its front page, under the headline, "Riots: meet the accused":

"Lifeguard, postman, hairdresser, teacher, millionaire's daughter, chef and schoolboy, 11."

The "millionaire's daughter" is Laura Johnson, who is alleged to have helped loot a branch of Curry's. According to the Telegraph:

The 19-year-old is a high-flying pupil who attended St Olave's Grammar School -- the fourth best-performing state school in the country.

She is now reading English and Italian at the University of Exeter.

. . . She achieved four A*s and nine A grades after taking her GCSE exams at St Olave's sister school, Newstead Wood.

She went on to take A-levels in English literature, classical civilisation, geography and French.

While studying she offered her services as a tutor.

Her parents, Robert and Lindsay Johnson, live in a large detached farmhouse in Orpington in Kent. They bought the house, which has extensive grounds and a tennis court, in 2006."

Hmm. Not very "feral", is she? And I'm not sure how she fits into Mel's welfarism/multiculturalism/liberalism narrative? She's been raised by two parents, in a wealthy environment, went to a fantastic school and is now at university.

So can we stop generalising please? On the left AND on the right?

Indeed, as Aditya Chakrabortty writes in today's Guardian, we should have anticipated . . .

. . . how this week's mayhem would be used by the political classes: as a kind of grand Rorschach test in which members of right and left would peer into smouldering suburbs and shopping streets -- and see precisely what they wanted to see.

If you're a left-winger, the causes of the violence and looting are straightforward: they're the result of monstrous inequality and historic spending cuts; while the youth running amok through branches of JD Sports are what happens when you offer a generation plastic consumerism rather than meaningful jobs.

For the right, explaining the violence is even simpler -- because any attempt at understanding is tantamount to condoning it. Better by far to talk of a society with a sense of over-entitlement; or to do what the Prime Minister did and simply dismiss "pockets of our society that are not just broken but, frankly, sick". You can expect to hear more of the same rhetoric in today's debate in parliament, especially from backbenchers on either side.

And then there are the think-tankers and policy entrepreneurs who must scan the daily headlines for hobby horses. At a conference on Wednesday on well-being, in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, Lord Richard Layard opined that the British rioters were "unhappy". In case you didn't know, Layard is the author of a book called Happiness (a new edition is just out).

Offering up a single explanation for the violence and looting that began in one London borough on Saturday and has since spread as far as Birmingham and Salford must be a nonsense.

Hear, hear!

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
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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.