Gove is right to push Prevent

By Lucian Hudson, June 12, 2014
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Some family rows are worth having. After a stormy fortnight in Westminister, we should reflect that Michael Gove and Theresa May may in fact have done the British public a favour by surfacing a genuine tension in our approach to combating radicalisation and preventing terrorism.

The Jewish community in the UK can only benefit from a wake-up call and renewed debate on counter-terrorism strategy. Government, at the centre and locally, can only do so much. Citizens and communities need to be continuously vigilant. As the government's own Prevent Strategy states: "Osama bin Laden may be dead, but the threat of Al Qa'eda inspired terrorism is not."

In my 10 years as a senior civil servant serving under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and working directly to four Cabinet ministers, one issue dominated government concerns: the UK's resilience following 9/11 and the London 7/7 bomb attacks. As a member then of the National Criminal Justice Board, and chairing a cross-Whitehall communications directors group, my aim was to communicate the risk tothe public, so that citizens themselves, and by extension communities, took responsibility. Our message was be "alert" - not "alarmed".

Blair established, Brown consolidated and Cameron improved the framework that the UK has in place to tackle violent extremism at its source. What is called the Prevent Strategy is an important part of this country's counter-terrorism strategy. The cross-party consensus is deep, even if it is not loud: the ideology of extremism and terrorism is the problem; legitimate religious belief definitely is not. The tension at the heat of the policy still persists - and this is healthy. Proactive paranoia can be constructive, but we need to focus on the most important, or risk "boiling the ocean" and achieving nothing.

Get them in our gang before they join another

When I was the communications chief at the Foreign Office in 2007, many departments, as well as our security and intelligence agencies, had a stake in creating the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, located in the Home Office, yet working across government. It has proved pivotal in forging a network which depends on other institutions and community groups delivering on the strategy.

From a progressive Jewish perspective, I find that there is nothing inherently wrong with radicalism - we were all clear-thinking once! Violence, or coercion, is what we look to governments to prevent. Most radicals do not become violent extremists. They grow up into citizens.

We need to avoid stigmatising many disaffected young people and reinforcing separatist identification. And diverting resource away from understanding why some people adopt terrorist violence as a creed. Community integration, jobs, citizenship responsibilities - and a modern form of national service may be part of a policy answer. Getting them in our gang before they join another. What must underpin our approach is managing the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

Much as I think that the government has it broadly right on its counter-terrorism strategy, Michael Gove is to be commended for agitating on this issue. Public trust turns on understanding the risks, and this in turn turns on communication and engagement. The Prevent Strategy is only as strong as the extent to which it meaningfully engages the public, institutions and communities. British Jewry is ready to respond.

Lucian Hudson is chairman of Liberal Judaism, and a former director of communications, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Last updated: 12:44pm, June 12 2014