The SNP's NATO u-turn

In its drive to sell independence to middle-Scotland, the nationalist leadership is neglecting the S

The news that the SNP is preparing to abandon its longstanding opposition to independent Scottish membership of NATO at its national executive meeting this summer has provoked murmurings of discontent, as well as a few loud howls of condemnation. The murmurings emanate from inside the party, with a handful of nationalist MSPs quietly indicating they intend to resist any shift in policy. The howls come from the leaders of the unionist parties, including the Tories' Ruth Davidson and Labour's Jim Murphy, who see the reversal as further evidence of Alex Salmond's failure to get to grips with the defence issue.

As the debate develops, Salmond will justify the move on the grounds it will offer reassurance to those concerned about the capacity of an independent Scotland to meet certain 21st Century security needs. He'll also say that, two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO no longer represents the ideological and destabilising force it did during the Cold War. 

By contrast, his opponents argue that it will limit the ability of the SNP to achieve one of its central goals: the removal from Scottish waters of British nuclear weapons. They claim that as a member of NATO – a defence alliance built on the principle of nuclear deterrence – Scotland would have an obligation to continue to host the UK's Trident system after having left the Union. They contend further that it is morally and intellectually inconsistent to advocate disarmament while enjoying the "benefits" of a nuclear defence pact underwritten by other countries.

But these criticisms don’t stand up to much scrutiny. Firstly, if other NATO members, like Norway and Germany, can hold non-nuclear status there is no obvious reason why an independent Scotland can't. And secondly, nowhere in NATO's 2010 Strategic Concept agreement does it say that new members are required to develop nuclear weapons capacity, nor that existing members are required to indefinitely maintain those weapons they currently possess. In fact, in committing NATO "to the goal of creating the conditions of a world without nuclear weapons", the preface of the agreement implies the opposite. 

However, the real problem for Salmond doesn’t lie with his unionist rivals (who tend to attack pretty much everything he does) or with his own party (which, according to Professor James Mitchell, is already broadly on board). Rather, the danger for the nationalist chief is that in his drive to water down the most radical aspects of his party's programme – and therefore make the break-up of Britain more palatable to "middle-Scotland" – he is alienating left-wing and anti-militarist supporters of independence. 

This is significant because, although reluctant to admit it, Salmond knows that victory in the 2014 referendum will depend on the cooperation of small radical groups and progressive civic society organisations, like the Greens and CND. That's not to say the SNP doesn't have the resources or grassroots capacity to run a campaign of its own – clearly it does. But unless it can demonstrate that enthusiasm for full self-government is sufficiently widespread, it will find it much harder to counter the unionist charge that "separatism" is a fringe doctrine fundamentally at odds with Scotland's constitutionally moderate majority. 

The first minister has expended considerable energy pandering to the right and its associated business interests in recent years - think of his pledge to cut corporation tax, his embrace of Rupert Murdoch and his monarchism. But he would do well to remember there is a powerful cultural and political left in Scotland, and it’s yet to properly flex its muscles in this debate. His looming u-turn on NATO could be the thing which finally prompts it to do so.

A Trident nuclear submarine off the coast of Largs, Scotland. Photograph: MoD/Getty Images
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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.