In a recent interview, the former Director General of MI5, Jonathan Evans, discussed his perspectives on the U.K.’s radical right scene. He highlighted that he suspected the rise of actors in the far-right scene was “a reflection of the social pressures on communities as a result of austerity measures. There seems to be a constituency of disaffected males (for the most part, but not entirely) who find extreme right-wing beliefs attractive”.
One of the conclusions I set out in my book; The Prevent Strategy and Right Wing Extremism: A Case Study of the English Defence League is that rather than thinking of Prevent as being the vehicle for countering the radical right, we should be investing far more in building cohesive communities, to create safe spaces for the difficult conversations we need to have about issues, such as the economic and cultural aspects of immigration, poor levels of social mobility, regional inequalities and the impact of ten years of austerity which have fed increasing numbers of grievance narratives from which the radical right has gained sustenance. Indeed, “Back to Basics” is the title of my final chapter where I make the case that responses to the radical right must be rooted in community integration rather than counter terrorism.
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For me, therefore, the answer lies in research - such as the “Left Behind: Understanding Communities on the Edge” carried out by the Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion (OSCI). It is in many ways reminiscent of the very granular level of analysis carried out under the Connecting Communities programme led by John Denham MP back in 2009. This was a £12 million programme to connect with “resentful white working-class communities in 130 wards across England and to undercut right wing extremism”, it “would address legitimate fears and concerns that if neglected could prove fertile territory for extremism”. This initiative was discontinued in 2010, but the lessons should not be forgotten. Reconnecting all our communities with locally elected representatives to give them a voice has never been more important.
The factors that draw an individual into terrorism are rooted in the real world of mental ill health, domestic violence, marginalisation, and the neglect of legitimate fears and concerns
Our response to the radical right must be to utilise existing structures and tools rather than re-inventing the wheel. We have seen most notably within Prevent how the emphasis has shifted from looking at terrorist ideology toward a wider set of socio-economic factors as contributing to an individual’s vulnerability to being drawn into terrorism. Any practitioner will tell you there is never just one factor that makes a person vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism. Lift the hood and you will find a range of overlapping and complex needs. These sometimes necessitate an ideological intervention, but in my experience by no means always. Often, the factors that draw an individual into engagement with terrorism are rooted in the real world of mental ill health, domestic violence, marginalisation, and the neglect of legitimate fears and concerns.
We have observed this mainstreaming phenomenon most acutely in relation to the Channel programme, under which local safeguarding practitioners deliver bespoke interventions with individuals vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism. In 2010, when Channel was still a pilot programme, the vulnerabilities associated with being drawn into terrorism could have been incorporated within the existing Children’s Safeguarding policy, alongside topics such as domestic violence and bullying. However, given the prominence of the threat posed by terrorism and rather than adapting existing processes, the Government developed the separate Channel process. As a result, the Government’s inter-agency guidance on “Working Together to Safeguard Children” stipulated that “all local authority areas should have an agreed process in place for safeguarding vulnerable children and young people susceptible to violent extremism”. However, the mechanism for those who were assessed as being vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism was seen as separate to the existing safeguarding processes at a local level. Indeed, in the 2011 Prevent Review, Channel was described as a multi-agency process “working alongside safeguarding partnerships and crime reduction panels”. However, we can see how the language associated with the Channel programme has evolved since its original inception to the way in which it was framed in the Counter Terrorism & Security Act of 2015, which states: “Section 36 of the CT&S Act places a duty on local authorities to ensure that Channel panels are in place for their areas. It is not prescriptive on how these panels take place in practice and it is acknowledged that a separate and bespoke Channel panel would be a disproportionate use of resources in some areas”.
The willingness to talk about difference –constructively, positively, and confidently at a local level - is sadly in short supply
This in many ways was an acknowledgement of the reality in most local authorities across England and Wales, which had been operating in a climate of austerity since 2010 and were simply not able to resource separate referral mechanisms and so this led to Channel-related referrals being managed through existing safeguarding processes such as the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH). This saw what was considered by many as the divergent Channel being absorbed more fulsomely into existing mainstream safeguarding processes, with local practitioners re-asserting expertise over process.
As I set out in a recent piece I wrote as part of Countering the Far Right: An Anthology, if you think the answer to the rise in the radical right threat lies in counter-terrorism and/or counter-extremism policies, you are looking in the wrong place. Rather, it lies in the way we build integrated, cohesive communities. To this end, rather than problematising this cohort of disaffected white males, we should be investing in research that explores the richness of the local inter and intra relationships between communities and the social pressures they are under to better understand how to promote meaningful and sustainable integration. A big part of this is about discussing differences as well as what people have in common, and that takes courage and leadership at the local political level. Talking about what we have in common is the easy stuff. But the willingness to talk about difference –constructively, positively, and confidently at a local level - is sadly in short supply.