Mehdi Hasan in today’s Guardian questions the extent to which the revised Prevent counter-terrorist strategy relies on the so-called “conveyor belt” theory of radicalisation — developed by neocons in the US and embraced by Michael Gove, who is thought to have had a big influence on David Cameron’s Munich speech. Hasan notes that a memo leaked last summer concluded that it was wrong “to regard radicalisation in this country as a linear ‘conveyor belt’ moving from grievance, through radicalisation, to violence … This thesis seems to both misread the radicalisation process and to give undue weight to ideological factors”.
In fact, it is the ministerial rhetoric that relies on this theory far more than the strategy itself. Ministers have also indulged in a degree of political point-scoring which the strategy entirely fails to back up — as well as being an unfortunate departure from the long-standing and generally respected tradition of keeping party politics out of counter-terrorism. There is a jarring contrast between Home Secretary Theresa May’s foreword — “we inherited a flawed approach” — and that of her independent reviewer Lord Carlile, who observes that “generally Prevent has been productive”. The strategy itself makes clear that it aims to build, in an evolutionary rather than revolutionary way, on most aspects of the work inherited from the last government. It also flatly contradicts briefing, in opposition and in government, about the extent of extremism in universities, prisons and elsewhere.
There is one big policy shift in the revised strategy: the intention, first set out in Cameron’s Munich speech, to tackle not just terrorists and violent extremists, but also non-violent extremists — defined as people and organisations who disagree with our “core values” including democracy, equality before the law, and universal human rights.
The strategy observes that “there have been cases where groups whom we would now consider to support an extremist ideology have received funding”, and states that in future “we will not work with extremist organisations that oppose our values. If organisations do not accept these fundamental values, we will not work with them and we will not fund them.”
The Conservatives are right to say that public funding should never have gone to extremist groups — though they had to apologise for careless accusations in opposition, and the new strategy confirms that their concerns were exaggerated. It notes that there is “no evidence to indicate widespread, systematic or deliberate funding of extremist groups, either by the Home Office or by local authorities or police forces.” There is also a danger that the Government will now make the opposite mistake — rather than taking the middle course, of refusing to fund these groups but still engaging with them, it will ignore them or try to marginalise them. Ministers should read the article last weekend on the ConservativeHome website, by a local activist and backer of the Big Society, which clearly sets out the flaws in this approach.
The more fundamental problem is that the strategy does not make clear whether the Government believes in tackling non-violent extremism as a matter of principle, or because it thinks this will reduce the risk of terrorism. Either or both are legitimate — if arguable — policy positions, but the Government needs to be much clearer which is driving policy in which areas, as they can have quite different implications.
A second and related problem is that this policy shift — which we know has caused a stand-off at the top of government — has, perhaps unsurprisingly, not been properly and coherently worked through the strategy. It is one thing to say that central government will stop funding extremist groups — and even start trying to marginalise them. It is quite another to demand that universities and internet providers intervene actively against groups or individuals who “do not share our core values”.
In the section on universities, the wording slides between asking universities to monitor and take action against people or groups involved with terrorism — which academics may tolerate — and asking them to monitor and take action against groups who disagree with our “core values” — which they surely cannot. There are similar concerns about the wording in the section on the internet, which slides between talking about blocking online content which is “unlawful” — which is a matter of fact, and relatively uncontroversial — and blocking online content which is “harmful” – which is a matter of judgment, and highly controversial.
Unless this strategy is rapidly clarified, it could have unhappy consequences for freedom of speech and thought, whether on campus or online.