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

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Do you see yourself as British or English? The answer could help define modern politics

The rise of English identity has left a glaring space in politics for an English nationalist party. Who is going to fill it?

Political scientists call it the “Moreno question”. In the 1980s, the Spanish academic Luis Moreno Fernández came up with a test for identity, which was originally applied to gauge interest in Catalan independence. In its English incarnation, it asks voters to grade themselves from “I feel more British than English” to “I feel more English than British”. Unsurprisingly, Ukip does best among those who describe themselves as “English, not British”, while Labour’s vote rises the more people see themselves as British. In the biggest group – the 47 per cent who see themselves as equally English and British – the Tories lead.

The Moreno question helps us make sense of three interlinking trends in modern politics. First, the stark fact that in the 2015 election, a different party won in each nation of the United Kingdom: Labour in Wales, the SNP in Scotland, the Tories in England and the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. Second, Ukip’s lack of success north of the border: the Herald reported in July that Ukip’s only elected representative in the country, David Coburn MEP, had been forced to take on the role of treasurer at his local branch in Fife because it has so few members. Third, Labour’s declining performance in its historic northern heartlands. Many voters there want a party with a distinctively English flavour and don’t feel that Labour is it.

Devolution has had many unexpected consequences, but the rise of an English identity is one of the least explored. Because of its demographic dominance, mainstream politicians have long argued that it would be unfair to give England its own parliament. Labour is particularly resistant to the idea because it would magnify the Conservatives’ power. As it is, the principle of “English votes for English laws” will exclude the SNP and Plaid Cymru from the grand committee-stage hearings on grammar schools, because education is a devolved matter.

However, the last general election showed that there’s a problem with English voters feeling ignored. In Worcester, the Tory MP Robin Walker told me in April 2015 that arguments about the SNP holding Labour to ransom cut through on the doorstep. “There is a real concern if [voters] are saying, ‘The proceeds of the mansion tax are all going to go on nurses in Scotland. That doesn’t help us,’” he said. Many English voters felt that the SNP would be a successful lobby group at Westminster for Scotland’s interests. Where was their equivalent?

For John Denham, the former Labour MP who now leads the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester, the same dynamic applied this summer in the EU referendum campaign. “Scotland got ‘Scotland Stronger in Europe’,” he tells me. “England had to put up with ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’. That was an elite campaign run by people who think Britain and England are the same thing.”

Once again, the Moreno question helps us understand a fundamental divide among English voters. Denham says that 80 per cent of people who defined themselves as “English only” voted Leave, while 80 per cent of those who called themselves “British only” voted Remain.

Denham thinks that this presents an enormous challenge for Labour in northern seats where Ukip is in second place, given that its intellectuals and leading politicians feel so squeamish about Englishness. “If Labour continues as a cosmopolitan, liberal party that doesn’t want anything to do with the politics of identity,” he warns, “it won’t reach those voters.”

Other politicians worry that if Labour doesn’t occupy this space, another party will. “As nationalists go, the SNP is pretty good,” a senior left-wing politician told me recently. “An English nationalist party could be something altogether more nasty.”

In this light, the election of Diane James as the leader of Ukip looks like a rare stroke of luck for Labour. She is a southerner, educated at Rochester Grammar School, and an MEP for south-east England. Although she is polished and professional – albeit prone to outbursts of admiration for Vladimir Putin – she seems unlikely to appeal on an emotional level to working-class white voters in the north, where the greatest potential for an English nationalist party lies. Thanks to Ukip’s Caligulan internal politics, the deputy leader, Paul Nuttall (from Bootle), did not stand and the charismatic Steven Woolfe (from Burnage) was excluded from the race after the party’s executive committee ruled that he had submitted his nomination papers 17 minutes after the deadline. (Another potential candidate, Suzanne Evans, was suspended by the party, and pretty much everyone else in Ukip seems to hate its only MP, Douglas Carswell.)

If not Labour, or Ukip, perhaps the Conservatives? Theresa May’s rebranding of the party, complete with articles on bringing back grammar schools in the Daily Mail, shows that she is pitching for Ukip-leaners. “In terms of language and biography, she has a better understanding of that struggling, socially conservative, English nationalist voter than Cameron did,” says Robert Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University and co-author of Revolt on the Right. He believes that any party that thinks a simple economic message can sway these voters is underestimating the “emotive” nature of identity-based politics. “It’s no use going to Sunderland and saying, ‘We’re going to nationalise the trains,’ and thinking, ‘They’ll come back to us.’”

There is another option. A new party could be born, perhaps even out of the ashes of post-referendum Ukip: Arron Banks, its mega-donor, has said that he fancies the idea. With the right leader, nationalist sentiment could spread like wildfire among the “English, not British”. And, as Nigel Farage has shown, you don’t need to get elected to Westminster to have an effect.

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 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times