There is only so long that any government programme can be misrepresented or lied about in both the press and Parliament before ministers feel compelled to act.
It was therefore no great surprise that last week, the Security Minister Ben Wallace announced in the House of Commons that Prevent, the government’s “Preventing Violent Extremism” programme, will be subject to independent review. This concession was granted following a House of Lords amendment to the Counterterrorism and Border Security Bill the government is currently trying to get passed.
In dealing with extremism — from Islamists through to the far right — Prevent is a vital component of the UK’s counter-terrorism architecture. A safeguarding programme, it is intended to intervene at an early stage to dissuade those drawn to extremist movements. Over half a million public sector workers — including those working in schools, hospitals and the police — have been trained to recognise potential evidence of radicalisation. As a result, Prevent has performed a valuable service in turning people away from committing acts of terrorism or from travelling to join terrorist groups abroad.
In a healthy society, Prevent would be fiercely defended. Unlike so many government programmes that have demonstrably failed, Prevent is a success. It saves lives for comparatively little taxpayer money and is regarded by many outside the UK as possibly the most advanced, world-leading programme of its type in the world.
Yet rather than be supportive and suggest ways in which it could work even better, a hysterical and at times unsavoury “Preventing Prevent” coalition has lined up to criticise it. This claque comprises left-wing academics and politicians, student unions, pro-jihad Islamist groups like Cage and human rights groups who partner with them, like Amnesty. To many in this coalition, Prevent is, at best, a pre-crime spying programme that attempts to criminalise thought. At worst — or when critics are at their most disingenuous — they present Prevent as part of a broader, state-led war on Islam.
For such reasons, some in this lobby have spent years calling for an independent review of Prevent. Now, they have got their wish.
That is unfortunate but, as long as the review just advocates tweaks rather than a wholesale change of policy, it need not be a disaster.
Even those who see the usefulness of a programme like Prevent, such as the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson, have been open to the idea of a review. After all, past exercises have been quite productive. It was an independent review initiated almost a decade ago that led to the revamped Prevent strategy of 2011, the one now so disliked by the UK’s largest Muslim umbrella group, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), and their allies.
It is worth remembering just how bad the state of play was at the time. Before that review, the government engaged with Islamists with abandon. As a rule of thumb, as long as you did not explicitly call for terrorist attacks against British interests, you were a potential ally — regardless of your views on the desirability of a caliphate, sharia law or even on terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world. That policy suited the MCB — then the government’s main interlocutors to Britain’s Muslim communities — just fine.
Yet the revamped Prevent strategy placed more emphasis on ideology and the way in which extremist ideas can feed into violent actions. Furthermore, it was explicit on which groups it would engage: We will not work with extremist organisations that oppose our values of universal human rights, equality before the law, democracy and full participation in our society. If organisations do not accept these fundamental values, we will not work with them, and we will not fund them.
That left the MCB — whose influence in Whitehall had already been diminished when its then deputy secretary-general had signed a letter in the spring of 2009 supporting Hamas, the “jihad” in Palestine, and attacks on navies preventing arms smuggling to Gaza — out in the cold.
This latest review could be used as an opportunity to double down on the approach of non-engagement with those who support such notions.
The review could also present an opportunity to expose the intellectual bankruptcy of the “Preventing Prevent” lobby. Mr Wallace alluded to this in the House, commenting that “this will give the critics of Prevent the opportunity to produce evidence, because time and again we have to spend time knocking down allegations without any evidence behind them. I will look forward to them producing that evidence as part of the process.”
Because they know they have no evidence, groups like Cage are already on the defensive about this. They did not welcome the government’s review, stating that it was just being used as a pretext to relaunch the policy and called for its immediate scrapping and an “honest conversation on the causes of violence” — by which they normally mean US and UK foreign policy.
Exposing those, like Cage, who are not just opposed to Prevent but ideologically opposed to the UK’s entire counter-extremism agenda, could be a pleasant consequence of the review. Yet that is the most optimistic reading possible. There are also all sort of hazards ahead for the government, even in areas they currently see as an opportunity.
Mr Wallace’s belief that groups like the anti-Prevent lobby will be exposed for the frauds they are relies on the notion that the government will be able to effectively control the narrative that emerges in the media as a result of the review. Judging by the incredibly inaccurate or outright false stories that have been written about Prevent in the past, and how widely misunderstood the programme is in many quarters, negative spin and bad headlines seem likelier.
Furthermore, there is blood in the water now and, inevitably, the sharks are circling. Those opposed to Prevent will use this opening to do all they can to delegitimise it. It is telling that some of Prevent’s most vocal critics — like Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) — were delighted to hear the news of the review.
There is yet another reason to be wary. While there is much to criticise this Conservative government for, they are not reckless over national security; they can be trusted to not imperil the nation. Unfortunately, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour absolutely cannot. Mr Corbyn is the embodiment of the alliance that has formed between the far left and the Islamists, which is centered upon a hatred of Western “imperialism”. Give Mr Corbyn the keys to Downing Street — hardly an unlikely prospect any more — and Labour would use anything negative emerging from this review to try to gut Prevent. Indeed, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott has already said she thinks Prevent “demonises whole communities” and “criminalises ideas, even on the vaguest grounds”.
That is why the government’s pick to carry out the review has to be spot on. In the counter-terrorism and counter-extremism area, the government has got it right more than wrong. The Liberal Democrat Peer, Lord Carlile, was an excellent pick to carry out the 2010 Prevent review because the successful years he spent as the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation meant he understood what a severe threat that the UK faced.
David Anderson’s time as the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation was also productive (although Max Hill’s recent stint less so). In a different remit, Sara Khan’s recent appointment as Lead Commissioner in the Commission for Countering Extremism was laudable.
Finding a figure who is acceptable to the MCB and its friends but also realistic about the nature of the ideological threat to the UK is, to put it politely, a long shot. In fact, the appointment of someone who understands the threat that extremism poses and can see how Prevent may be useful in heading this off is exactly what groups clamouring for this review fear. The MCB’s press release concerning the announcement of the review foreshadows this, stating: “Those tasked with its implementation must have the independence, credibility and trust required to deliver it.” This should be translated as: you had better appoint someone who is already a strident critic of Prevent and has “credibility” with us and our friends.
Not, in other words, another Sara Khan, whose appointment to the Commission for Countering Extremism was attacked so viciously by the MCB, Baroness Warsi and also the Islamists of Mend. This was, in part, because Khan refused to toe the MCB/Mend line on Prevent and had even publicly called out the “Muslim groups who have made it their mission to make Prevent toxic”.
The government should not waste time seeking to indulge those implacably opposed to Prevent’s very existence. What is required is someone with an open mind about where Prevent could be improved but versed in the nature of the threat that the UK faces today and uncompromising about the need to face it down.
That will be easier said than done. But if this review is to be productive, rather than an opportunity for the anti-Prevent lobby to chip away at the program’s entire existence, it is absolutely vital.
This piece originally appeared in The Jewish Chronicle