Without the delivery of integration work at the local level, any effort to counter extremism is effectively built on a shaky foundation with too much sand in the mix.
“Communities Defeat Terrorism” was the tagline when I worked as the head of strategy and policy in the office of the UK’s National Coordinator for Prevent within the National Counter Terrorism Headquarters nearly three years ago. The whole basis of the policing approach to preventing individuals from being drawn into terrorism was that communities should play a leading role, not the police. This wasn’t about the police service pushing a “securitizing agenda” but rather acknowledging that the majority of the work required to build integrated and resilient communities should take place without the involvement, and certainly the leadership, of the police.
One of the guiding principles in the 2011 Prevent counterterrorism strategy is that “Prevent depends on a successful integration strategy.” And yet, without the delivery of integration work at the local level, any effort to counter violent (or “non-violent” extremism) is effectively built on a rather shaky foundation with too much sand in the mix.
One of the primary conclusions I draw in my book, The Prevent Strategy and Right Wing Extremism: A Case Study of the English Defence League, is that right-wing extremism is poorly understood and articulated at a national policy level. There is a lack of synergy on this issue between the integration, cohesion, hate crime, Prevent and counterextremism policy areas, the interpretation of which at a local level has led to inter-agency tensions that have been further negatively impacted by government-imposed austerity measures on public sector resourcing since 2010.
Let’s consider the focus on looking at “online harms” and the recently published white paper. Yes, the online dimension to this is important, but it is also another distraction from what the government should be doing in the real world. Facebook, Google and Twitter have social responsibilities that they are slowly waking up to, and it is right that governments across the world hold them to account for what is taking place on their platforms, not least in relation to the support for violence as a means of furthering a world view.
But our government cannot abdicate its own duties in this regard. What is being done to build integrated, resilient communities? Communities will not do this by themselves, and this is where effective local government must play a much greater role. Local government officials have great convening powers. They are well positioned and able to work across and within communities to build consensus, and to create safe spaces for the challenging conversations that need to be had.
So why isn’t this happening? In essence, building integrated communities is difficult. It requires commitment, funding and patience, all of which are in short supply in the Brexit-obsessed Parliament. The desire of our current crop of politicians to chase headlines and signal their own virtuosity at any opportunity is akin to watching an under-10’s football game, with everyone chasing the ball and losing their positions. And yet, the continuance of communities essentially living apart is happening on their watch.
Instead of seeking to build “tolerant” communities, how about trying to build them on mutual respect? I tolerate someone playing music too loud on the London underground. Aiming for tolerance is indicative of a chronic lack of ambition in building integrated communities across the United Kingdom. Coupled with this is the huge under-investment in the very services required to deliver this work. Local authorities have been described as being “on life support,” many of them having their budgets cut by 40% since 2010, with those in the north bearing the brunt of austerity.
During the research for my book I interviewed practitioners in Newcastle, and it was common knowledge across statutory services and community organizations that the risk profile there was associated with right-wing extremism. Given the increasing threat profile emanating from right-wing extremism from northern areas, the government needs to take the continuum of risk escalation and, therefore, the interconnectivity between policies governing everything from integration through to terrorism much more seriously.
This is one of the reasons why police Prevent practitioners continue to be drawn into work that is fundamentally about community integration and is one of the great ironies of the 2011 Prevent review. The government stated that it wanted to more clearly delineate between community integration and counterterrorism. And yet the scale of the reduction of funding into the former has inevitably led to a continued role for Prevent practitioners (not just police) in the integration space.
A lot of criticism is often leveled at the Prevent strategy. And yet there has been very little work to understand the relationship between this strategy and the others that intersect in the areas of integration, hate crime and extremism. Recently, David Anderson, QC, the former independent reviewer of counterterrorism legislation, highlighted how the government’s attempts to define extremism have failed the so-called Clarkson test. The way in which the government adopts definitions and frames its policies matters, because this sets the parameters, both financially and operationally, as to how frontline practitioners implement them within a local context.
The way in which the terms “extremism,” “the far right” and “Nazi,” among others, are currently being thrown around should give us all pause. My concern for some time has been that the term “extremism” in particular is used far too expansively. From a risk management perspective, if our security apparatus is spread across everyone who is an “extremist,” this increases the likelihood that we will miss those who pose the greatest risks.
Communities defeat terrorism: not social media platforms, not working parties torturing over legal definitions — communities. Yes, they have a role, but this should not be prioritized to the neglect of those communities that form the solid foundation upon which everything else should be built.
*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.