Centering Prevent as a governance mechanism: Behind Rishi Sunak’s ‘mob rule’ extremism claims

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Rishi Sunak’s call to ‘double-down’ on Prevent has generated a lot of media headlines about ‘new’ definitions of extremism, but it’s important to know that there are no new definitions offered at all.

In fact, this is simply the implementation of the recommendations made by William Shawcross in his review of Prevent in February 2023.

This review did not offer any new definitions of extremism, either; just the familiar one already set out in the 2011 Prevent strategy which provides a catch-all for ideas deemed unsavoury by the state: “active opposition to British Values”.

Shawcross recommended that Prevent should re-focus away from far-right extremism toward ‘Islamist’ extremism. He also recommended that there should be disengagement from civil society groups that are judged to be extremist, or which criticise Prevent.

This was to be the responsibility of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. This is the recommendation we see playing out in the headlines right now.

Towards the criminalisation of ideas

Shawcross also recommended that Prevent should be less concerned with the vulnerability of individuals to radicalisation and more concerned with their susceptibility. This means Prevent will have a greater focus on ideas, or ‘ideology’.

However, Prevent remains concerned with activities that are, in themselves, lawful and where no offence has been committed (or, for that matter, and especially in cases of under 14s, even intended).

For this reason, it completely upends core principles of justice – in fact, it sidelines them because it is impossible to be just when no act of criminality has occurred. Instead, individuals are damaged for life, in the name of fear – and this is especially harmful in cases where children are involved.

There are non-violent terrorist offences, for example, which involve the glorification of terrorism or support for terrorism actors, but these do not fall under Prevent.

Critics of Prevent of the last ten years have warned of its risks to fundamental rights, especially when they are to be put to use by an unaccountable policy like Prevent, and increasingly by a government that believes that violence is based on ideology, not context.

Conservative MP, Miriam Cates, captured the danger of this when she told the Guardian, “Any attempt to define extremism or fundamental British values is very risky because one person’s extremism is another person’s sincerely held and lawful belief.”

However, it speaks less well of her political acumen that this has been the case for the last decade!

Keeping the Shawcross review in sight

Shortly after Shawcross’ review of Prevent, the authors of the People’s Review of Prevent analysed his recommendations and singled out the most problematic from the point of view of human rights – including the right to religious belief and political dissent – and governance.

The review process itself was deeply problematic; Shawcross’s ties to neo-Conservative lobby groups and his targeting of Muslim civil society groups in his previous role as Charity Commissioner meant he had no credibility in the Muslim community – which is the main target of Prevent.

For those not part of the Muslim community but working with Muslims in different civic roles, and those who are concerned with the preservation of human rights and good governance, his ties to the Patel-Simcox-Gove clique of think-tanks and policy makers meant his appointment as reviewer was deeply problematic.

The manner in which his long-delayed review was eventually released – first leaked to the press, and then sent to the Home Office after several private email exchanges with the Home Secretary – confirmed that this basic lack of objectivity hid deeper irregularities.

These irregularities and the subsequent already-doubled-down Prevent have serious implications for governance, justice and accountability of those holding public office and serving in the public sector.

Our calls to withdraw Prevent from education and health first, must become stronger if we are to build a country of diversity and stability.

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Photo by Timon Studler/Unsplash.

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