Explaining the rightward drift

Austerity alone can't account for today's harsher and more individualistic attitudes.

As the NS's George Eaton notes, the latest British Social Attitudes survey -- which reveals increasingly negative attitudes towards benefit claimants and a decreasing support for higher taxes, green policies and redistribution -- makes grim reading for progressives. For Janet Daley, on the other hand, the news is cheering evidence that the centre ground of British politics is "a movable feast" and has moved firmly to the right.

I can't say I am surprised by the findings. But I don't think that the harsher public mood can properly be explained either by the chill winds of austerity freezing up the marrow of compassion or by Daley's preferred answer, "that the theory of public spending as the cure for all social evils has been tested to destruction". The change runs much deeper and has been evident for many years. And while it has created a new problem for the political left, the left rode the wave successfully for more than a decade.

Embracing and even promoting a discourse increasingly hostile towards society's losers and outsiders was a big part of New Labour's electoral strategy. It was Harriet Harman who reduced benefits for single mothers, Jack Straw who removed ancient legal protections for under 14-year-olds accused of serious crimes, and a succession of Labour home secretaries who presided over a doubling of the prison population. It was Labour, not the evil Tories, whose tellingly re-named Department of Work and Pensions introduced tough, contracted-out tests for incapacity benefit claimants.

The Thatcher government of the 1980s may have talked tough but its policies, by today's standards, were at times absurdly soft-hearted. Benefit claimants were indulged, students enjoyed a free education (and grants!), the prime minister herself ruminated on the impossibility of ever privatising the Royal Mail. But that's not because Maggie and Co were closet Lefties, of course. It just goes to show how far the centre of political gravity has indeed shifted during the past three decades.

It's paradoxical, to say the least, that while welfare spending has declined as a percentage of GDP over the past three decades (even while other types of government expenditure rapidly increased under Labour), resentment of welfare claimants has hugely risen.

This can't all be result of political rhetoric. Not unless you assume that the public are uncontemplative and sheeplike, meekly absorbing messages beamed at them by politicians. New Labour wouldn't have tacked so firmly to the right were it not for the fact -- revealed by opinion polls and focus groups -- that such policies and language were popular. Here are some other factors I think may be relevant:

1) The media. Newspapers such as the Mail have painted a persistent picture of work-shy benefit scroungers, typically immigrants, typically living in a four-bedroom council house with the latest in flatscreen TVs, typically claiming incapacity benefit while playing basketball or moonlighting as an exotic dancer. The stereotypes thus created undoubtedly helped to produce an atmosphere of hostility to welfare recipients. Even so, without an undertow of pre-existing public suspicion, the Mail's reports would have had less purchase. As with political rhetoric, the role of the press raises a difficult chicken-and-egg problem.

But it's hardly surprising that when the allegedly left-leaning BBC screens prime-time documentaries about incapacity benefit cheats, people exaggerate the level of welfare fraud -- to the extent of assuming that most if not all claimants are fraudulent.

2) Increased belief in meritocracy. Actual social mobility has not increased -- on many measures it has been reduced -- but there has been a marked decline in both deference and class-consciousness, and a convergence upwards of educational opportunities. Once there was a precipitous divide between the majority who left school at sixteen with few or not qualifications and a small university-educated elite. Now those who leave school "early" are widely assumed to be failures (who can therefore be assumed to bear responsibility for their reduced life-chances).

Margaret Thatcher's famous dictum that "there is no such thing as society" was widely and wilfully misinterpreted but it did accurately sum up the new individualistic morality: that people make their own luck, and that therefore the situation people found themselves in was to a large extent their own responsibility. If you believe that people's lot in life is largely beyond their control then you may have more sympathy -- and be more willing to support -- those who have fallen on hard times.

3) Less mutual trust and social cohesiveness. Partly this is a consequence of the aforementioned individualism, the growth of single person households and the hollowing-out of traditional communities. But there's also the changing face of the country, the result not only of immigration but of multicultural policies and the emergence of ethnic, religious and even sexual group identities. Because we live in a more "diverse" society people may be less likely to think of their fellow-citizens as people like themselves, and thus more likely to ask themselves, "Why should MY taxes go towards supporting THOSE people?" rather than thinking (as they may once have done), "One day that could be me."

Welfare-friendly societies have usually been fairly cohesive and culturally homogeneous -- like Scandanavia -- while, by contrast, the United States has been (culturally, economically, and geographically) highly diverse. But even the Scandanavian countries are more disparate than they used to be. A notable symptom of this is an increased enthusiasm for welfare cuts.

4) Less religious belief. Today's survey reports a continued decline in levels of religiosity: half the population now claims to have no faith affiliation (and half of those rarely if ever attend services). Younger people are both less religious and have "harsher", more individualistic social attitudes than their elders. While it's dangerous to draw political conclusions from religion (there are, after all, believers of all political persuasions as well as none), faith is positively correlated with feelings of compassion and with lower levels of selfishness. Christians, for example, are encouraged to practise forgiveness. It's striking that a more secular society is also in some ways a harsher and more judgemental one, less willing to overlook past failings or offer second chances. Perhaps it's also more realistic.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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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.