Saving capitalism? The price could be democracy

Greece is faced with severe austerity measures. Why shouldn't its people have their say?

Right now everyone seems to be getting terribly excited about saving capitalism. Which is fair enough, in the face of global meltdown.

However, it seems to me that the price of saving capitalism is increasingly likely to be "democracy". Which would be a shame as I'm a big fan of democracy. On the whole, I think it's a good thing.

"What insight," I hear you cry, "what understanding of the basic tenants of human rights".

No? Well, consider this.

Let's start with Occupy London (or Wall Street, Oakland, Tunbridge Wells, wherever). Apart from the fact that some folk think they make the place look a bit untidy, the main issue people have with the Occupy crowd is "that they don't have any answers".

They have a list of things they don't want -- but not a list of things they do.

And I say, so what? What's wrong with just asking the questions? The Occupy folk aren't standing for elected office, nor claiming to be able to solve the problems of the global economy. The finest economic minds in the world, plus George Osborne, haven't cracked that one. So it seems a bit unreasonable to expect some bloke in a tent who just thinks that taxpayers' money shouldn't be shuffled through to bankers in the form of bonuses, to then have all the answers to the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s. If it was that easy, we'd all just pop into Millets and seek the opinion of the man on the till.

We'll ask the questions. It's the job of our elected elders and betters to answer them.

And now it would also seem we're not allowed to mark our representatives' homework either. Hence every democratically elected politician in the world goes white as a sheet at the thought of asking the Greek people if they're happy with the deal done on their behalf.

Funnily enough, I'm not a huge fan of referendums at the drop of a hat. I rather like Edmund Burke's view of democracy: "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

But there's a time and a place for everything. And when years of extreme austerity measures stretch out before a population, pensions are slashed, public spending is squeezed, every ministry has an independent "observer" installed from Brussels, and none of it ever featured in any sort of manifesto proposal -- well, asking the people if they are up for it doesn't seem so bad? Does it?

So, we seem to be in a world where asking questions without knowing the answers, or questioning the answers you've been given, is seen as a thoroughly bad thing. Which to me is an affront to democracy.

Still, at least no-one's raising the spectre of war or postulating about the chances of a military coup to force things through.

Oh? Lordy.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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.