I used to work as a ministerial advisor at DCLG. I met the department’s ‘theology section’ whose only job was to throw the weight of government against (all) Muslim thought. Or fund invented government backed ‘representative’ groups with links to nowhere. Working with John Denham we tried to moderate a programme that could provide no evidence for its strategies. After the election I watched Eric Pickles back really creative new schemes to build bridges in fresh ways. And so I’ve been really bothered by Hazel Blears, the Manchester MP, is doing the media rounds today backing Michael Gove against Theresa May and calling for a return of the policies that she tried out when the was Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. While I respect the intensity of Hazel’s integrity let’s get this straight – she is wrong. I say this on policy grounds partly because I was involved in sorting out aspects of the policy she left behind while I was working directly for her successors, and partly because of an enduring interest and involvement in bringing people together from communities who do not often meet.
The Prevent programme under Hazel Blears did not work: Not long after her departure the evaluation of the funding she provided to the Charity Commission to work ‘ in communities..against extremism’ came across our desks. It was a monumental failure of engagement more often than not creating resentment rather than goodwill. Not surprising really as the formula for the allocation of resources across the programme as a were not well evidenced threats from researched localities but a blanket ‘Muslim head count’. That is it if you were a Muslim you were judged by Hazel’s programme to be a security threat. Pity the Gujarati entrepreneur in Chichester and the Bangladeshi curry house owner in Frodsham. No wonder under Hazel Blears Muslim staff at DCLG wrote asking for more taps for their prayer room and got a letter back from the Preventing Violent Extremism division because it was’ a Muslim issue’ : No doubt they all looked the same. No wonder some Muslims told me they found the very existence of the programme politicising because of its demonization of a whole community. That is not surprising because most of the work that was unleashed by the otherwise admirable Ruth Kelly and Hazel Blears were often invented in the brainstorming sessions of expensive consultants and revenue hungry religious studies departments anxious to maximise their income. If anyone wants an explanation of the origins of the self- appointed, unrooted, unrepresentative Muslim ‘leader’ and ‘commentator’ it is in this trough of rent seeking opportunities that it was born.
As Secretary of State John Denham’s response was to seek to broaden the DCLG’s work so that it was focused on connecting all communities. He worked hard to moderate the tone of Prevent making it clear that it should never be harnessed by the local state as a simple mode of surveillance nor be grounded on a working assumption that a whole community was a threat. Most Muslim parents, after all, are as focused on looking after their kids and paying the bills as any of us. And many Muslim kids may not share my views on the right of Israel to exist but carrying intense solidarity with your fellow co-religionists in your heart and expressing grave concerns about Israel’s behaviour are not yet crimes in our country.
And this perhaps is where the most sensitive question nestling at the heart of the present debate rests: The Jewish community in the UK have watched in horror as so many friends and allies in the Middle East have been devastated by political violence on the part of some Muslim activists. When the UK Jewish Community senses a threat at home many of their number naturally cross reference back to Israel and want intense responses here too. That is why at times they have heavily funded the Quilliam Foundation which had an outing on Newsnight last night to back Michael Gove/Hazel Blears. Lord Carlisle, who followed up on the Today programme this morning, is well networked in that community while Michael Gove too has strong family reasons for wanting to make sure that all those he loves are safe. But internationalising local matters makes for great love, real passion and huge integrity – but rotten policy.
In the face of the threat of political violence the apartheid state, the Northern Ireland Office, the Peruvian state and many others have tried ‘all out ideological war’ against their enemies. In place after place these ‘catch them young schemes’ more often than not had the impact of expanding the base of political sympathy among the non – violent for the cause that the violent were seeking to address. In some cases intervention to insert more ‘moderate theologies’ by the state so offended that young activists were radicalised on the spot. The government schemes did more damage than it helped. And an intense focus on ‘ideology’ at the expense of all else had policy makers skipping other factors such as idealism, boredom, romanticism, exploitation , and poverty as bigger drivers of behaviour than religious ideas (the religious of any kind, of course, find it hard to believe hat sometime religious ideas aren’t the shapers of a human’s behaviours all the time) . No wonder Eric Pickles wisely called Prevent a ‘disaster’ when he arrived at DCLG. And Lambeth Palace agreed with him.
The only way forward here is for policy to return to research and evidence rather than intense rhetoric and point scoring between communities. New work that cuts across disciplines now emerging from various schools of government – rather than only religious studies – could help. But Hazel Blears defending that which failed and backing Michael Gove for him this is understandably a personal rather than a policy question will not help us find paths forward with real traction in the future.
Gove Vs may is not the issue. Evidenced versus emotional policy making is.