There's a weirdly upbeat mood in the city

Are we in denial?

No one seems quite certain whether these are the best of times or the worst of times for the City. Well, OK, few think these are the best of times (that accolade still belongs somewhere back in the pre-2008 boom). But while there are still major problems in the banking sector, including what to what to do on executive pay and bonuses and how to deal with the fallout from scandals such as Libor-rigging and the sale of dodgy loan insurance products to SMEs and individual, there is nevertheless an upbeat mood in the air. This is most obviously epitomised by the FTSE 100 share index, which crashed confidently through the significant 6,300 mark last month and with only a few minor blips since has continued to regain heights not previously seen since before the crash.

But there has also been a noticeable upswing in corporate finance activity, with a rash of major M&A deals either done or on the cards.

In the last week there have been announcements about the leveraged buyout of a majority stake in computer giant Dell, the acquisition of Virgin Media by Liberty Global and even rumours of a private equity backed leveraged buyout of a significant chunk of the UK’s largest mobile telecom provider EE (formerly Everything Everywhere, itself formed from a merger between Orange and T-Mobile). All these deals point to a more buoyant start to 2013.

There have been several theories hatched to explain this sudden upswing. It started with a growing belief towards the end of last year (misguided according to the more bearish commentators) that the actions of the European Central Bank (ECB) and others have done enough to make the euro crisis recede, if not go away all together.

Then the US managed to avoid dropping off the fiscal cliff (again the bears would suggest that we’re not out of the woods here either, with a no real budget agreement struck and the pain merely deferred). But all these attempts to rationalize this upswing (which has so far not been matched by any sort of similar recovery in the real economy) don’t really explain it enough. Now, there will be plenty of people keen not to ask too many questions.

So desperate have we become for good news (any good news) that it seems like heresy to even question the source of any optimism.

The rest of this article can be read here, on economia

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

Photo: Getty
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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.