Why I couldn't care less about being important

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

Here you go, babe.” Curly hands me four crisp £20 notes. I flick through them wonderingly – this is a highly unfamiliar sensation – before tucking them away in a drawer. My housekeeping money. The phrase seems like something from another age.

My decision to give up paid work – not to mention the near-nervous breakdown that preceded it – appears to have focused Curly’s mind. In just a couple of weeks, he has drummed up two Saturday jobs and has enrolled on an evening course in carpentry. I didn’t even nag him; he just did it. And now he’s done it, he seems rather pleased with himself. There is something newly brisk and confident in his bearing.

“See you later!” The boys and I wave as he heads off for the station in his smart shirt, for all the world like a family from a 1950s TV show. As the door closes, I wonder what to do with the day. Shall I make jam? Bake a cake? Knit something? The last time I tried to knit anything was in primary school and it did not end well but, all of a sudden, I wouldn’t rule it out.

I’m not sure what has happened to me. I used to be thrusting and ambitious. I used to dash around in taxis, schedule high-level meetings, take off for Brazil at a moment’s notice. I used to want to be important and influential.

At the moment, I can’t think of anything worse than being important and influential. The very idea sends a shiver down my spine. I would definitely be a big disappointment to the sisterhood, if the sisterhood were to find out what I’m up to. Only the other day, there was an article in Sunday Times Style by an important woman telling us we should all try harder to be more important. For a brief moment, I wondered if she was right. Then I threw the magazine into the bin and squidged a dirty nappy in there, too, right on top of her smug, self-righteous face.

The funny thing is, actually, I don’t give a monkey’s left ball about all that. I don’t care about anything except for being calm and happy and enjoying my life again. Once Moe is down for his morning nap, I take my copy of Delia’s Complete Cookery Course off the shelf, blow off the dust and turn to the jam section.

“Slice one kilo of fresh pink rhubarb.” Aha. Funnily enough we got rhubarb in the Abel & Cole box this week. I get it out of the fridge and rinse it off. Larry appears in the kitchen. “Mummy, I’m bored.”

“Why don’t you help me make jam?”

“Jam’s boring.” Busted. I snap Delia shut and put down the knife.

“What do you want to do, then?”

“I want to go to the pub.”

“You what?!” “That’s what Ben’s mummy does. Ben gets crisps and plays Simpsons pinball.”

I have to hand it to Larry. That suggestion is so wrong and yet . . . so right. Feeling everso- slightly furtive, I ping a quick text to Ben’s mummy and take one of the twenties back out of the drawer.

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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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.