Prevent, the British government’s counter-extremism strategy, has been controversial since it was first proposed a decade ago. Under Prevent, teachers, lecturers and a host of other professionals have a duty to safeguard individuals considered susceptible to radicalisation. Anyone who appears to challenge British values, or whose behaviour attracts suspicion, can be reported to local authorities for monitoring and re-education. Nearly 4,000 people were referred under Prevent in 2015, almost three times as many as in the previous year. The youngest was just four years old.
spiked has been vocal in criticising Prevent for fuelling bans on campus speakers, monitoring research and creating a climate of mistrust and suspicion among academics and students. Others, such as the National Union of Students (NUS) and the lecturers’ union, UCU, share these concerns and have challenged Prevent for promoting racism and Islamophobia and targeting Muslims. The NUS has been at the forefront of opposition, with its Preventing Prevent handbook and its Students Not Suspects campaign. UCU Left offers advice on ‘Challenging the Prevent Agenda’ and in March this year members of the National Union of Teachers backed a motion calling for Prevent to be scrapped.
In recent years, opposing Prevent has become a central principle of the political left in the UK. Sadly, this has only ever amounted to, at best, a half-hearted defence of free speech; the NUS, for example, fails to recognise that when it comes to banning speakers, Prevent and its own preferred policy of No Platform are two sides of the same censorious coin. Nonetheless, the NUS posed a clear and definite challenge to Prevent.
Not any more. Last week, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott publicly criticised Prevent. Her outrage wasn’t directed at the case of the 14-year-old boy reported for using the French word for ‘terrorism’ to describe an airport sign. In his French class. No, Abbott’s gripe is that Prevent doesn’t go far enough. It isn’t rounding up enough people with extreme right-wing views. ‘The Prevent programme has failed to change the attitudes of those on the far right’, she complained.
An article on Left Foot Forward, the ‘political blog for progressives’, was more explicit: ‘Prevent gets a bad press but it’s a crucial tool against the far right that killed Jo Cox’, said a headline. Forget for a moment that Cox’s killer, Thomas Mair, is here absolved of all responsibility for his crime; what’s notable is the rehabilitation of Prevent into a policy the left can exploit to serve its own political purposes.