The Tories and Labour agree: there won't be a second vote on Syria

As dismaying as it may be to interventionists, both parties have decided that the wisest political choice is to move on.

Barack Obama's decision to seek Congressional approval for military action against Syria, rather than launch immediate missile strikes, has raised the question of whether a second parliamentary vote on UK involvement could be held. This could take place after the UN weapons inspectors have reported on the Ghouta massacre and after the Security Council and Congress (on 9 September) have voted. The irony of Thursday's outcome is that there was a hypothetical majority for not ruling military action out (Labour's position) even if there was clearly not one for ruling it in.

But in their appearances on The Andrew Marr Show this morning, both Douglas Alexander and George Osborne stated that a second vote would not be held. Alexander emphasised that Cameron had "given his word to the British people that the UK will not participate in military action in Syria". He added that he was "intruiged" by Cameron's decision to rule out military action after the defeat (Labour sources tell me that they did not expect him to do so) but that staging another vote would raise questions over his "judgement" and that this would "weigh heavily on the public and parliament".

One option would be for Cameron to call Labour's bluff by overriding these concerns and putting forward a new motion on Syria, but Osborne, who knows the PM's mind, ruled this out. He said he disagreed with those who argued that a "bit more evidence" would change MPs' minds and concluded: "Parliament has spoken. The Labour Party has played this opportunistically. The Conservative MPs and the Liberal Democrats who could not support us – they have a deep scepticism about military involvement. I don't think another UN report, or whatever, would make the difference. Of course I wanted us to be part of a potential military response. Now that is just not going to be open to us."

For both parties, there is no political benefit to be gained from prolonging the question of whether the UK could participate in military action. A second parliamentary defeat would be immensely damaging to Cameron and he is under pressure from senior Tories to refocus on the domestic concerns that will determine the outcome in 2015. For Labour, there is no political incentive to challenge Cameron's decision to rule out intervention. Ed Miliband has narrowly avoided a split in his own party (shadow transport minister Jim Fitzpatrick resigned before the vote and I'm told by a party source that at least five other frontbenchers were prepared to do so) and, after a woeful summer, has regained authority as the man who prevented a precipitous rush to war.

As dismaying as it may be to principled interventionists, both parties have decided that the best thing to do is to move on.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.