Prevent needs to have confidence in its own identity
When William Shawcross was appointed to lead an independent review of Prevent, I argued he needed to put the fight against non-violent extremism at the heart of the strategy. As we approach the long-awaited submission of his report to the Home Secretary, interest is increasing.
This week David Cameron, the former Prime Minister, captured an essential element of the challenge facing the Government, in a foreword to a Policy Exchange report looking at Prevent’s critics. Cameron argued that delegitimising counter-terrorism risks enabling terrorism.
The debate around Prevent is not an idle academic exercise – getting it right matters. The murder of my colleague David Amess, the deadly terrorist attack on three gay men in Reading in 2020, and the botched Parsons Green bombing in 2017, all involved extremists who had been in contact with Prevent, but who carried on their path towards violence.
This is not the first review of Prevent, or the first attempt to update our approach to counter-terrorism. In my earlier analysis of Prevent, I likened the post-2011 version of the policy to a satellite that flew at 80,000 feet, without the “boots on the ground” that were also necessary.
As far back as 2015, David Cameron identified the ‘grievance culture’ poisoning the worldview of some young British Muslims. I wrote regretfully of the then-Prime Minister’s analysis: “His ideas failed properly to take hold in Government departments, let alone in communities.” Self-appointed ‘representative’ organisations were also indefatigable in besmirching Cameron’s analysis. They understood too well the threat it posed to their own survival.
Those problems persist and are exacerbated by the use of new technology. To address them, Prevent needs a stronger identity, and it needs to develop the self-confidence which flows from positive leadership. Talking to local Prevent staff, I am struck by their commitment and dedication.
However, those at the coalface sometimes see the Home Office as distant and isolationist. Statements in support of Prevent, whilst welcome, tend to come across as stock responses, when what is needed is sustained engagement from Ministers and senior officials.
Local authorities also have a role to play. Too often they fail to do any mapping exercises locally, struggle to get out and about into the community, and instead rely on ‘gatekeepers’ or a small number of activist organisations who have their own agenda. Yet for all the noise on social media, opinion poll data suggests the uniform opposition to Prevent from ‘representative’ organisations, is not shared by British Muslims.
As part of rebuilding Prevent’s identity, it needs to be restated what it is for. Prevent exists to stop people from becoming supporters of terrorism and stop people becoming terrorists. It must therefore challenge extremism in all its forms, and in a way that is understandable to the public.
One issue Shawcross will have to address is the declining number of Islamist related referrals, in a period where Islamist terrorism and extremism has continued unabated. Where there is considered to be a genuine risk of radicalisation, Prevent referrals may be followed by what is known as a Channel intervention.
The latest Home Office figures for Channel cases in 2020-21 record 46 percent concerned far-right extremism, just over twice the number for Islamist influenced individuals, which actually fell to 22 percent. Britain has a number of angry far-right activists, spewing out bile, and seeking to attract others to their cause in the process. Whilst we can’t ignore the referral data, are we sure fascists and neo-Nazis constitute twice the threat Islamists do? Shawcross will need to answer questions like this, to ensure Prevent doesn’t lose its way.
To further recast Prevent’s identity, it needs greater transparency, with clear Ministerial control and accountability. Without this, the opposition will fill the void. This is not to decry Prevent’s critics. It is through debate and critique with democratically elected politicians that policies are improved and fine-tuned.
But the undermining of a counter-terrorism policy is a different matter. For some of Prevent’s opponents, undermining is simply a prelude to abolition. Why would anyone want a permissive environment for extremism? As David Cameron has alluded, society needs to ask much harder questions of anti-Prevent activists.
The quest for constructive criticism has not been helped by the tendency for some of the debates around Prevent to become increasingly absurd. For many for us, for just challenging the critics of Prevent and tackling the issue of Islamist terrorism means we have to deal with abuse and death threats.
It gets worse. I came across comments that suggested that the treatment of British Muslims is on a path to how China treats Uyghur, who are genocide at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. How utterly absurd and shameful – and I should know. I’m the only female MP sanctioned by China as national threat for leading the way in the UK and internationally in exposing Uyghur genocide, trying to save the lives of Uyghur men, women and children.
The Shawcross report is not the first attempt to recalibrate Prevent, but it is perhaps the most important. It must signpost a way for Prevent to refashion its identity. We know too well the risks of not getting it right.
This article was originally posted in Conservative Home