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In pursuit of Prevent

John Holmwood suggests that government anti-extremism strategies put universities’ place in UK democracy at stake

The independent review of the Prevent duty under William Shawcross has been long delayed, but leaks to The Guardian suggest that a draft is now with the Home Office awaiting approval. The auguries are not good.

Most worrying is that there appears to be significant ‘misdirection’ in the association of recent terrorist incidents—from the murder of Southend West MP David Amess to the Fishmongers’ Hall stabbings—as failures of Prevent. They are not. They are failures of another strand of the government’s counterterrorism strategy, Pursue, concerning intelligence and the security services. It is noticeable that ‘foiled’ plots are attributed to Pursue, while Prevent is made the scapegoat for any failures.

The elision of Prevent and Pursue is also evident in a statement attributed to the Shawcross report: that “a renewed focus on Islamist extremism is needed, including when individuals do not yet meet the terrorism threshold”.

The last part of the statement misses the point of Prevent. Prevent operates in what is deemed a pre-criminal space, where no individual could meet the terrorism threshold. It addresses ideologies and beliefs that are not illegal and where there is no evidence that any individual will go on to commit offences (whether violent or non-violent).

In this context, there is no difference between Islamist and right-wing ideologies that might be the object of concern. The ‘signs’ in each case are necessarily ambiguous. Does the expression of the belief that white populations in Europe are being replaced constitute worrying extremism that should be reported to a local Prevent panel? Is the expression of the belief that government should be based on Islamic principles problematic?

The indications are that Shawcross will propose that the former should not be flagged for consideration, while there should be greater concentration on Islamist expressions even where they involve individuals and groups that advocate democracy and oppose violence.

Freedom of speech

Should this be of concern to universities, apart from the wider issues around the civil liberties of Muslim citizens?

There are few Prevent referrals from the sector and a number of reports have suggested that Prevent is not very intrusive in practice. Nonetheless, its mechanisms of surveillance are in place. We should expect that the Shawcross report will be seeking to direct those mechanisms.

How? And what about the implications of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill?

In a recent article for Prospect, former universities minister David Willetts argues that the bill potentially provides legal recourse to speakers excluded under the operation of Prevent policies and therefore should be scrapped. What seems likely is that the Shawcross report will provide guidance that right-wing opinion does not meet the criteria for exclusion under Prevent and will be protected from being ‘cancelled’.

On the other side of the equation is the Prevent duty itself, which currently states that public authorities must pay ‘due regard’ to the risks of radicalisation. In the case of universities, they may balance those risks with their obligations towards academic freedom (obligations that don’t need a new higher education bill) or their obligations under the Equality Act.

In this context, Paul Stott, head of security and extremism at the think tank Policy Exchange, has written in The Times that university staff are failing to report ‘Islamism’ under Prevent for fear of being deemed ‘racist’.

This is the conundrum set up by Willetts—but, as the government sees it, it is easily settled. We should expect the Shawcross report to recommend that the Prevent duty be mandated. In this case, it will require universities to use their existing mechanisms to exclude speakers deemed to be Islamist (including, potentially, their own academic staff).

Rebuttal of critics

How will universities be helped in this task? Right-wing think tanks close to the government, such as Policy Exchange, have already proposed that there should be a ‘ministry of truth’ in the Home Office.

A Centre for the Study of Extremism has been proposed, which would study extremism and organise the proactive rebuttal of critics of government policy. It would also conduct ‘due diligence’ and an active policy concerning the distribution of public funds and the certification of civil society groups—“Groups campaigning against Prevent and counterterrorism policies would be denied partnerships in other areas. This would be tied to an equally important process of constant evaluation, to ensure organisations do not ‘go bad’ over a period of time and are not targeted by entryists.”

Policy Exchange proposes that there is no evidence that Prevent has had a ‘chilling effect’ on the free speech of British Muslims, at the same time arguing that there has been such an effect on right-wing speech within universities. The government cites this as justification for its Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.

The culture wars on higher education are hotting up and the aim is specifically now to free right-wing speech and to chill that of Muslim citizens and their legitimate organisations.

The question that is about to be asked of universities is how far they are willing to go in defence of free speech. And to what extent will they oppose government plans for the certification of partners?

This is a new authoritarianism, where the government presents itself as the protector of free speech while seeking to undermine the expression of opposition to its policies. It is not only the autonomy of universities that is at stake but how they function in and for democracy.

John Holmwood is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham. He is co-author (with Layla Aitlhadj) of The People’s Review of Prevent, which recommends the withdrawal of Prevent. Declaration of interest: The People’s Review of Prevent has been named by Policy Exchange as one of those “Islamist” organisations seeking to “delegitimise” counterterrorism, thereby “enabling terrorism”.