Aura of success: the National Assembly for Wales in Cardiff. Photo: Getty Images
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The view from Wales: the time for nostalgia about empire and union is past

Preserving the past in aspic risks neglecting the future.

As Scotland moves ever closer to the referendum in September that will deter­mine its future, Plaid Cymru looks on in anticipation. We may not be in the same constitutional position but the Party of Wales has good reason to be optimistic. Scotland’s steady advance creates great possibilities and opportunities for Wales to carve out a stronger position within these islands for ourselves.

It is clear that people in Scotland have already succeeded in moving to what I would describe as an independent mindset and to a point where the Scottish National Party First Minister commands respect, influence and authority on the highest stages. Alex Salmond continues to set out an exciting vision of what an independent Scotland will look like: a “people’s constitution”, a Scottish welfare state, and an economy that will compensate for the prominence of oil and gas revenues by investing heavily in renewables. The SNP government has been able to demonstrate that Scotland has all the tools to become a successful independent country.

It goes without saying that Plaid Cymru supports a Yes vote in Scotland, but the tectonic plates are now shifting to such an extent that there is bound to be far-reaching political and constitutional change whichever way the vote goes. This in itself should not come as a surprise, given that the current constitutional settlement in the United Kingdom is less than 100 years old and that matters like this seem to have a habit of changing once in every three or four generations.

There are poll results which show an increasing thirst for autonomy in Wales. A survey carried out on behalf of the Silk Commission, set up to examine the case for further devolved powers in Wales, shows that more than half of the population wants welfare and benefits to be controlled by the National Assembly for Wales. The same poll indicates that 70 per cent believes powers over renewable energy, including large windfarms, should transfer to Wales. On policing, 63 per cent says these powers should be devolved. In 2011, every Welsh constituency bar one voted for law-making powers to be transferred from Westminster in devolved matters. This is remarkable, considering it is barely a generation since devolution was rejected resoundingly here in the 1979 referendum.

The challenge will be to convert this pop­ular demand for greater control over our own affairs into electoral success for Plaid Cymru. One of the obstacles in matching the success of the SNP is, and has been, the strength of the Scottish economy compared to that of Wales. Scotland’s economic history exhibits all the signs of a country that formed a union with England. Wales’s economic history demonstrates a country that was conquered, annexed and absorbed by England, with only our distinct culture preserving the idea that we are a nation. It is one of the reasons why, under my leadership, Plaid Cymru is focusing on the transformation of the Welsh economy.

The Scottish referendum gives us in Wales a new opportunity to ask why the Union has failed consistently to enable Wales to become a prosperous nation. It also encourages us to keep asking questions about whether any government in London will be able to deliver for the Welsh economy, and spurs us in Plaid Cymru to set out a vision that involves us having more control over our affairs – including levers that would help us improve the economy, such as taxation, rail policy, ports and energy. While the people of Wales are not yet convinced that they will be better off as an independent country, they want substantial further devolution.

The spirit of Nordic co-operation could be a new way to look at the politics of the United Kingdom, or what will be left of it. New institutions could also be built around the sterling zone and the “social union” that the SNP is seeking to preserve, while retaining our domestic autonomy (and, of course, our rugby and football teams!). In such a scenario, Wales would look much more like a modern nation state than it ever has done.

A grouping of friendly and close-knit nations should always exist in these islands. But preserving the past in aspic risks neglecting the future. The time for nostalgic views about empire and union must now give way to a partnership of equal nations. Our diversity should be celebrated, not submerged. Solidarity is something that should be shared between equal nations.

The Scottish referendum, whatever the result in September, will establish a new, multinational era.

Leanne Wood is the leader of Plaid Cymru and the Assembly Member for South Wales Central 

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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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.