Defending Peter Watt over those Gordon Brown revelations

Why should the public only be told of the PM's regime after the election?

The backlash against Peter Watt for writing his memoirs was predictable, and he was braced for it.

However, I challenge anyone to read his full story, which I ghostwrote, and not understand and respect his decision to tell it.

Actually, the idea for the book was mine, not his, though he didn't take much persuasion. And let's get one thing straight: neither of us did it for the money. Indeed, for differing reasons, both of us were prepared to write the book for nothing. Until it was finished, we didn't even know if we would cover our costs.

The project began after I met Peter to interview him for a newspaper article in May last year. It was the day after the Crown Prosecution Service announced that he would not face charges, and after 18 months of forced silence, he was finally free to speak.

He poured out his heart about the way he had been treated by the Labour leadership, and the hugely damaging price he had paid for what he felt was a collective mistake.

He seemed more hurt than angry or embittered and was clearly desperate to set the record straight. He had so much to say that, there and then, I floated the idea of working on a book together.

Neither of us knew quite what we were getting into but, every time we met, he told me things I found funny, interesting or extraordinary -- sometimes all three. He was frank and self-deprecating, and the more we talked, the more confident I became that his story would interest others as much as it interested me.

I am not a big fan of heavy political books, and it was the sense that he had a compelling human-interest story as well as serious information that appealed to me. He spoke very movingly about the death of his father, his marriage and his role as a foster parent, and was very open about his feelings.

Timing was obviously a big issue. Peter was already sticking his neck out by revealing sensitive information and knew that publishing before the election would cause further anger. But there seemed little point in bringing out the book after everyone had lost interest. In any case, those who argue that he should have waited until after the election are in effect saying the public should be told about Gordon Brown's regime only after it is too late for them to do anything about it.

This seems a cowardly and dishonest way to treat the electorate.

It is easy for critics to carp about Peter's disloyalty, but I wonder how many of them would feel an iota of loyalty in his shoes? Make no mistake: this man almost lost everything, arguably through little fault of his own.

Expecting him to keep quiet about it, to spare the blushes of those who hung him out to dry, is a demand too far.

Isabel Oakeshott is deputy political editor of the Sunday Times

 

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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.