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How I nearly joined a cult of men in yellow jumpers - but got out in time to dodge Nick Clegg

It's great being a Lib Dem - you don't have to believe in anything. For a brief moment in 1996, I thought I'd found my people.

Oddly I do know how someone can become a Lib Dem. It happened to me in 1996. For an entire day I thought I was one. It was quite freeing. You could, I felt, be a Liberal Democrat and just think whatever you liked. You didn’t have to believe anything. Amazing.

Obviously this didn’t happen out of the blue. Someone had sent me to a Lib Dem conference, where I wandered around, lonely as a Lembit.

Up until then I’d never actually met a self-confessed Lib Dem in my life, and I think the fact that these people could just blast out policies with no coherence whatsoever must have been what I found most appealing.

Earlier that year had been the horrible massacre at Dunblane, but there I was, listening to loons saying we should all have greater access to handguns. Wow, I thought, these people are kinda out there. All of these excitable blokes and Shirley Williams induced in me some kind of trance. I went to bed thinking I’d found my people.

When I came to, I realised that my people were not middle-class men in jumpers and I felt bloody awful.

That morning, at a fringe meeting about why there were so few women in the party, only blokes spoke.

A woman put her hand up to say something and the chairman said, “Let’s take a question from the little lady in canary.”

Christ, what had happened to me? Some sort of alien abduction? I left and, like most people, never thought about them again for a decade.

Then suddenly, just before the last election, they started banging on about civil liberties and I found myself sitting next to Vince Cable at a discussion. Cable, who had prophesied the recession, said it could bring about all the preconditions for fascism.

“Blimey,” I thought. “Am I a Lib Dem?” It was happening again. Even unlikely people got taken over. At the same conference, Brian Eno was milling about in the green room. He had become one! When I suggested to the organisers that they get him on stage to do a speech, they had no idea who he was. Politicos have the collective cultural hinterland of a whelk.

“Roxy Music,” I found myself yelling at puzzled Liberal Democrats.

“Never heard of them.”

So when Cleggmania happened, I thought: I won’t get fooled again. I went to another Lib Dem gathering for which my notes for an entire week read, “Went up a tower for dinner with Norman Baker. (Transport?) He had an altercation in a taxi and is a conspiracy theorist. I just want to go home.” No one else appears to have made any impression on me whatsoever.

But that’s how they do it. This blankness is like political Rohypnol. How else can you explain their power? Trust me, you really don’t want to stand too close to them.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

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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.