David Cameron's new world order

Security, cyberattacks and an end to the sofa of spin

David Cameron stood in front of a vast map of the world at Chatham House this morning. And in his new vision, he will be at the centre of it. The Tory leader outlined plans to set up a National Security Council, lopping bits off the MoD, Foreign Office and DfFID budgets to create a joint, "joined-up" approach that would include a "war cabinet" for Afghanistan.

There was a fair amount of policy (and he had Liam Fox, Pauline Neville-Jones and Chris Grayling lined up to boost him on that front), but there was a lot of politics, too. Of particular concern appeared to be the furniture of government:

We will end the culture of spin by making sure that decisions about national security are taken formally, not on the sofa, but round a table, and with all the right people sitting round the table.

Cameron, clearly enamoured by the table, made a series of unsubtle if timely digs at New Labour foreign policy, particularly on Iraq, after Alastair Campbell's appearance at the Iraq inquiry this week.

If you hire responsible people, people you really trust, who want to lift politics up, not stoop down to its lowest level, then you have your best guarantee against dodgy dossiers.

Strangely mimicking the language of Sarah Palin, he also referred repeatedly to the loss of "trust" in the "system", and promised a higher style of politics, a commitment to planning to avoid catastrophes such as the aftermath of Iraq, and a respect for the institutions of government. But his key point, about the "joined-up" approach, will be ruinous for most organisations working to promote development. As Oxfam said in a statement released shortly after the event:

Removing aid from the poorest people and using it for military goals rather than tackling poverty would be a big step backwards and would undermine the UK's leadership role on international development.

Cameron can expect a fight from NGOs if he tries to push all the government's development efforts into mopping up after costly wars. He promised to maintain a 0.7 per cent share of gross national income for development spending. But, as Oxfam's response shows, if this simply means taking funds away from current development projects to support his security strategy, it will be deeply unpopular.

The Tory leader did a speed tour round his other priorities -- cybersecurity, civil liberties and social cohesion. But he didn't stick around. After responding vaguely to questions about Conservative engagement with the EU and the future of the Met (and usually deferring to Neville-Jones or Fox), Cameron departed to address the Women's Institute in Chipping Norton. You're late for the Women's Institute "at your peril", he quipped, to much mirth from the gathered suits.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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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.