Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott responds to the statement by Home Secretary Amber Rudd in the House of Commons on the recent terror attacks in the UK, June 22,2017. Press Association Wire. All rights reserved.In less than two weeks, Jeremy Corbyn managed to see through (at least) two spectacular achievements. One was a staggering political earthquake, which puts Labour much closer to a parliamentary majority than was ever thought possible. The other was to open up some breathing space in the asphyxiating and toxic public debate about terrorism and counter-terrorism.
In the aftermath of the tragic Manchester attacks, Corbyn emphasised that the War on Terror was not working, that an effective response required a more informed understanding of the causes of terrorism and that this included looking seriously into the government’s foreign policy decisions.
It is no surprise that foreign policy or political and social conditions have stayed out of public debate on terrorism for so long. It may be the sheer shock and consternation that follows terrorist violence. It may be the (false) assumption that talking seriously about the causes of terrorism is to justify it. Or it may be the view that nihilist violence is not something we can, and therefore should, try to understand. But it is also years of repeated counter-terrorism legislation that have kept hammering the point that terrorism is something exogenous rather than endogenous to society and that we can fight it by legislation rather than radical political or social change.
The Prevent Strategy, which was legalised by the Counter-Terrorism Act 2015, is a central plank of this narrative. Prevent broke away with the myth that terrorism is something that is born abroad, in the ‘failed’ States and the dictatorships of the East. But the figure of the ‘home-grown’ ‘radicalised’ terrorist that emerged out of the strategy fundamentally distorted the problem. Prevent locates the causes of terrorism at the level of abstract ideas – extremism and terrorism begin with the vocal opposition to British values – and their incubation into individual vulnerable bodies eventually producing the intractable terrorist self. This not only avoids taking stock of the inter-connections between foreign policy and domestic security or between neo-liberal policies and global human insecurity. It also more fundamentally forecloses any form of State responsibility for terrorist violence.
Although it is no secret that the strategy is primarily aimed at the Muslim community – and that it therefore itself contributes to the creeping Islamophobia that has characterised the War on Terror and that fuels the sort of racist violence underpinning the Finsbury Park attacks – Prevent is not fundamentally concerned with trying to pin down what these ‘extremist’ ideas are. What matters is that they are not the values of the British State and hence that terrorism could never truly be traced back to its actions or policies, whether at home or abroad.
Replacing ‘British values’ with ‘universal democratic values’, as the Liberal Democrats propose, may address some of the problems underpinning the definition of extremism, not least the hypocrisy that the rule of law, democracy or human rights, are somehow peculiarly British values. But it would not counter the view that terrorism is something that inherently inhabits the ‘outside’, rather than a form of violence that emerges out of a complex set of factors that include the actions of the British State and other allied democratic governments.
More of the same
In contrast to Corbyn’s response, Theresa May’s reaction to the Manchester and London Bridge attacks was to promise yet more counter-terrorism legislation. Harsher restrictions on movement through the tightening and expansion of TPIMs (Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures), more deportations, greater powers of surveillance, longer sentences. Curbing the actions of these individuals will, she maintains, deliver ‘safety and strength’ to the public, despite the fact that hard legislation has already tried and visibly failed to diminish terrorist violence.
Given widespread criticism and opposition to Prevent, her position on the strategy remains ambiguous. May’s four-point plan for a renewed package of counter-terrorism legislation now includes recasting Prevent as an Engage programme. But only a few months ago there were rumours that the policy would be strengthened further. In any event, no major U-turn is to be expected on the policy. Just as TPIMS are increasingly looking like the control orders regime which they were meant to replace, any change to the Prevent strategy is likely to be cosmetic and temporary at best.
May’s longer term plan, moreover, is to expand, not reverse, the counter-extremism agenda by transposing much of the counter-terrorism toolkit to this area, introducing such measures as the banning of extremist groups or extremist disruption orders and closure orders designed to stop individuals engaging in extremist behaviour, and shutting down premises used to support extremism. Her latest project – formally announced in the Queen’s speech – includes the creation of a Commission for Counter-Extremism designed, among other things, to advise the government on how to assert British pluralistic values, building further on the problematic assumptions that underpin the Prevent agenda.
Enabling genuine dialogue
Last December, Diane Abbott called for a major review and fundamental rethink of the Prevent strategy. But if we really are to begin talking seriously about the causes of terrorism and deliver on the changes that are genuinely capable of tackling terrorist violence, there is no watered-down version of Prevent that will do the trick.
Prevent is not an unworkable, ineffective or counter-productive strategy. It is the lifeblood of a political establishment that seeks to pre-empt any meaningful public dialogue about the links between terrorist violence and the actions of the State at home and abroad. Corbyn is right that if there are difficult conversations to be had, this must start with the UK’s relationship to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. But for these conversations to take place, Prevent and the language of extremism must go.
Blairism imported counter-radicalisation from the Netherlands into UK policy. The Tories expanded the Prevent strategy and placed it on the statute book. It should be among the first steps of a Corbyn-led government to put it back where it belongs: the wish-list of a defeated right wing opposition.