Deprivation in Glasgow. Photo: Getty
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Scottish independence: how inequality is fragmenting our nation

We are now a nation torn apart (soon perhaps literally) by inequality, and the danger is Scotland is merely the beginning

With Scotland about to vote on independence, there’s been much hand-wringing as to what may be the root cause of a possible Yes vote. One of the more popular and plausible observations is that a significant number of Scottish voters feel that political parties in Westminster do not represent them. It’s a compelling argument given not all of our politicians exude ‘everyman/woman’ qualities. But the problem is far greater than our political class.

We are now a nation torn apart (on Thursday perhaps literally) by inequality, and the danger is Scotland is merely the beginning. The simple truth is that material differences create social distances, and in the UK these material differences are vast.

Huge numbers of people in Scotland feel that the Westminster village is a long way from them, but so do people on the Mozart Estate in theLondon borough of Westminster. This goes beyond a simple lack of political representation, it is a growing feeling of distance between people, an increasing sense that a small number of people are soaring into the stratosphere while the rest of us are left behind.

And this is not just a gulf between the elite and the poorest. Since the financial crisis, people on middle incomes have become poorer while theinvestments of the rich have steadily gained value, or at least those able to invest in top FTSE companies. 

One of the perceived successes of the Yes campaign in Scotland is that is has mobilised huge numbers of social housing tenants – people often written off as so alienated from politics as to be very unlikely to vote (or as a Better Together strategist reportedly put it "people with mattresses in their gardens do not win elections"). This should tell all politicians something – that writing off those worst affected in our unequal society is not only deeply unjust, it may also be politically damaging. 

One of the few political parties well-positioned to benefit from this is of course UKIP, who claim to be a "people's army" ready to "topple the establishment". UKIP appeals to "the left behind", who now constitute vast swathes of the population. It is an intoxicating offer for the swelling numbers of people struggling to pay the bills and make ends meet.

There are short-term steps the political establishment can take to repair relations with the electorate and reengage with those worst affected by inequality. Part of that is to mind its language. Statements about mattresses in gardens obviously do not help, but neither do references to "middle earners" paying higher-rates of income tax, a statement patently untrue but allowed to swirl around public debate on taxation.

However, most of the steps necessary to reunify our nation are longer-term and less superficial. We do live in a nation run by elites. Only 7 per cent of people go to private school, but 71 per cent of senior judges do, 62 per cent of senior armed forces officers, 55 per cent of Permanent Secretaries, 53 per cent of senior diplomats, 44 per cent of the Sunday Times Rich List and the list goes on. The transition from this deeply elitist society to a fairer and more equal one will not be achieved overnight.

But steps can be taken to keep the nation together, whatever is left after Thursday. Over 80 per cent of people think the gap between the richest and the rest is too wide. The government that takes power in Westminster in 2015 must make it a priority policy goal to reduce that gap, while the nation still has enough coherence to be effectively governed.

Duncan Exley is director of The Equality Trust

Duncan Exley is the director of the Equality Trust

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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.