Terror prevent strategy is muddled - and potentially dangerous

Despite the radical spin, the strategy is mostly evolutionary rather than revolutionary – and all th

Mehdi Hasan in today's Guardian questions the extent to which the revised Prevent counter-terrorist strategy relies on the so-called "conveyor belt" theory of radicalisation -- developed by neocons in the US and embraced by Michael Gove, who is thought to have had a big influence on David Cameron's Munich speech. Hasan notes that a memo leaked last summer concluded that it was wrong "to regard radicalisation in this country as a linear 'conveyor belt' moving from grievance, through radicalisation, to violence ... This thesis seems to both misread the radicalisation process and to give undue weight to ideological factors".

In fact, it is the ministerial rhetoric that relies on this theory far more than the strategy itself. Ministers have also indulged in a degree of political point-scoring which the strategy entirely fails to back up -- as well as being an unfortunate departure from the long-standing and generally respected tradition of keeping party politics out of counter-terrorism. There is a jarring contrast between Home Secretary Theresa May's foreword -- "we inherited a flawed approach" -- and that of her independent reviewer Lord Carlile, who observes that "generally Prevent has been productive". The strategy itself makes clear that it aims to build, in an evolutionary rather than revolutionary way, on most aspects of the work inherited from the last government. It also flatly contradicts briefing, in opposition and in government, about the extent of extremism in universities, prisons and elsewhere.

There is one big policy shift in the revised strategy: the intention, first set out in Cameron's Munich speech, to tackle not just terrorists and violent extremists, but also non-violent extremists -- defined as people and organisations who disagree with our "core values" including democracy, equality before the law, and universal human rights.

The strategy observes that "there have been cases where groups whom we would now consider to support an extremist ideology have received funding", and states that in future "we will not work with extremist organisations that oppose our values. If organisations do not accept these fundamental values, we will not work with them and we will not fund them."

The Conservatives are right to say that public funding should never have gone to extremist groups -- though they had to apologise for careless accusations in opposition, and the new strategy confirms that their concerns were exaggerated. It notes that there is "no evidence to indicate widespread, systematic or deliberate funding of extremist groups, either by the Home Office or by local authorities or police forces." There is also a danger that the Government will now make the opposite mistake -- rather than taking the middle course, of refusing to fund these groups but still engaging with them, it will ignore them or try to marginalise them. Ministers should read the article last weekend on the ConservativeHome website, by a local activist and backer of the Big Society, which clearly sets out the flaws in this approach.

The more fundamental problem is that the strategy does not make clear whether the Government believes in tackling non-violent extremism as a matter of principle, or because it thinks this will reduce the risk of terrorism. Either or both are legitimate -- if arguable -- policy positions, but the Government needs to be much clearer which is driving policy in which areas, as they can have quite different implications.

A second and related problem is that this policy shift -- which we know has caused a stand-off at the top of government -- has, perhaps unsurprisingly, not been properly and coherently worked through the strategy. It is one thing to say that central government will stop funding extremist groups -- and even start trying to marginalise them. It is quite another to demand that universities and internet providers intervene actively against groups or individuals who "do not share our core values".

In the section on universities, the wording slides between asking universities to monitor and take action against people or groups involved with terrorism -- which academics may tolerate --  and asking them to monitor and take action against groups who disagree with our "core values" -- which they surely cannot. There are similar concerns about the wording in the section on the internet, which slides between talking about blocking online content which is "unlawful" -- which is a matter of fact, and relatively uncontroversial -- and blocking online content which is "harmful" - which is a matter of judgment, and highly controversial.

Unless this strategy is rapidly clarified, it could have unhappy consequences for freedom of speech and thought, whether on campus or online.

Matt Cavanagh is Associate Director at IPPR www.ippr.org

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle