I'm proud to be a member of the "Humourless Left"

Is the Jubilee fawning really what we do better than anyone else? If so, is that something to be proud of?

As we prepare to take down our soggy union jack bunting ahead of the ceremonial handover to St George flags on car roofs, I’m left with questions. Is this really what we do better than anyone else? If so, is that something to be proud of?

Yes, I’m glad of a day off (though it’s unpaid in my case). But I’m also allowed to have a look at what’s happened over the past few days and marvel at the sheer madness of it. Aren’t I? Or must we be shackled to the warble of jubilation, the hearty cheer and the wave of a plastic flag, above every sliver of criticism? Is no mockery allowed?

I fully accept the moniker ‘the humourless left’. Yes, we are the buzzkill, killing your buzz, your fading glow of empire and ‘wasn’t it fun when we were starving people to death and putting people in concentration camps, and now all we do is run call centres’. That’s fine. I am the Humourless Left, left without humour or fun at a time when no-one has any jobs or money while we watch giant golden things belonging to one family. 

But I have just seen, on television, Huw Edwards looking out of a window at the Queen passing by in a coach. He did it, and I saw it. It was as if the BBC were justifying the enormous expense of this four-day royal love-in by that moment. “See, I can see it through the window!” Huw was trying to say. And all I could think of back was “Oh, well good for you, mate.”

There have been similar moments of bafflement right across the weekend. I’ve seen Emma Bunton talking about bunting. I’ve seen Ronnie Corbett provide narration of a room full of people eating their lunch. I’ve seen Stevie Wonder and Will.I.Am wish her majesty a happy birthday, and suffer the tsunami of criticism from the Twitter pedants as a result – like we even know when either of the Queen’s birthdays is meant to be. I’ve seen people talking about boats for what seemed like a lifetime, but which was only really six hours of live TV. Boats! People on boats for six hours.

As ever, the BBC’s rivals have used this occasion as a stick with which to beat Auntie – sometimes fairly, sometimes not. It’ll be interesting to see when the accusations of ‘leftist bias’ return to the corporation after these days in which everything’s been wonderful, and everyone loves the Queen, and everyone everywhere has been just like the perma-grinning mobs on the Mall.

We’ve even seen the biased anti-Tory BBCCCP bring in David Cameron for a couple of hassle-free cosy chats about how much he loves the Queen as much as we plebs do at home, at a time when his ministers are raising fresh questions about their conduct. Give it a week, though, and the usual suspects will be railing about how the Beeb is a hive of pinko nastiness.

Truth is, in the cold light of day and with the right royal hangover receding, you can only broadcast what's there. The Big Society flotilla was a soggy shambles – bring along the little ships from Dunkirk and have done with it. The Queen’s concert was enjoyable enough, though not always for reasons of quality – poor Cheryl Cole (sorry, Cheryl) wailing away into the evening air will live long in the memory, but not for the right reasons.

And of course, there are questions now being raised about the free labour used to steward the billionaires’ fun – obviously by the Humourless Left, who can’t just sit back and anaesthetise their critical faculties for four days, mewling idiots that we are. I dare say there were lovely scenes in communities up and down the country getting together, but that was hardly touched by what we saw on TV – it was the usual Londoncentric celeb-heavy drivel.

It’s just that I feel almost apologetic about pointing this out, like I shouldn’t be doing it. I’m not ruining anyone’s fun, but come off it – if you think we sold ourselves as a nation of anything other than willing subjects prepared to bow and scrape to our betters, I think you’re mistaken.

Jubilee: A royal supporter holds Queen Elizabeth and Union flags as people wait on the Mall for the carriage procession of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Photograph: Getty Images.
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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.