Jonathan Russell is political liaison officer for Quilliam.
The direction of travel on counter-extremism strategy is entirely positive. Theresa May today talked about a values-based approach, has identified the merits of tackling extremism of all kinds rather than just its violent incarnations, and now agrees that the policy will need buy in from many different government departments, as well as non-governmental bodies like charities and schools.
This could have been achieved four years ago by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), but in their neglecting to provide us with concrete solutions to what is a complex policy area, they have made a sword for this coalition’s back. The upshot is that the Home Office resumed control of it, despite the conscious strategic decision after the Prevent review to separate its sharp end from its soft end.
Moreover, the Home Office have then been faced with trying to rush through a strategy that needs departmental buy-in from the Department for Education (DfE), the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), as well as the aforementioned DCLG.
There will necessarily be implications for how those respective Secretaries of States do their jobs, and a sensible way to achieve consensus on this, and pursue a much-needed comprehensive approach to tackling extremism, is to have consultations with each of these departments long ahead of time.
Then there’s the coalition question. All three major parties don’t particularly disagree with the direction of counter-extremism policy, at its soft end. But by having a Home Secretary reveal a counter-extremism strategy, you inevitably get some policies that the police, also responsible for Pursue, Protect and Prepare, might have to implement.
As such, the necessary space between countering extremism of all kinds as a social ill, and countering terrorism because it poses a national security threat, gets eroded.
It is on the sharp end that the Liberal Democrats often disagree with May, because of the challenges to civil liberties that draconian policies might pose.Take today’s mention of Banning Orders when extremist groups don’t meet the threshold for proscription, a measure which I cannot see getting through the yellow half of the coalition.
Lastly, there is the danger of politics getting in the way of policy. This portfolio is too important to become a political football and the danger is that unveiling a strategic direction with fewer than 50 days to go until a General Election will be interpreted as part of a Conservative Party manifesto, not a government strategy.
There is a danger that the policies may be dragged to the right to ensure votes aren’t lost to UKIP, or that Labour or the Liberal Democrats respond negatively to it simply to put space between them and the Conservatives. May was correct today when she said the whole of society needed to build a partnership against extremism of all kinds, but talking about it at this stage risks alienating potential partners and we cannot let that happen.
A good counter-extremism strategy is about structure, stakeholders, delivery, and timing. Structurally, we need the kind of values-based approach May mentioned today to fill the space between integration and security, and we need someone above the relevant government departments coordinating this portfolio and the duties of the different departments.
Stakeholders-wise, we need to consider whether the police are the right people to deliver this work, or whether we can build strong public-private-third sector partnerships.
Delivery is all-important: let’s ensure that neither practitioners nor recipients of this strategy are confused about what it asks of British citizens; for this, the proposed Extremism Analysis Unit will be a welcome centralised hub for due diligence but could also assume a training role. Lastly, on timing – we must see something tangible in the first 100 days of a parliament not when it is due to be dissolved in 7 days.
If we had movement on this much earlier in the parliament, and the correct department had pursued it, with the right level of consultation, I believe we really would have been able to foster a “Stronger Britain, Built on our Values.”