Robin Simcox

Now the Prevent programme is in safe hands

The government was right to appoint William Shawcross as its Independent Reviewer, says Robin Simcox


LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 10: Author William Shawcross with his Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (RVO) medal, presented by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II during an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace on March 10, 2011 in London, United Kingdom. Mr Shawcross wrote the official biography of the Queen Mother. (Photo by Dominic Lipinski - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

February 05, 2021 15:05

The UK has suffered repeated terrorist attacks in recent years. At least one of the perpetrators was on the radar of Prevent, the UK government’s strategy to stop people from carrying out or supporting acts of terrorism. Prevent plays a key part in keeping the UK safe from terrorist atrocities.

Those facts may seem contradictory, but all of the above can be true at the same time.

Prevent is the safeguarding programme for dealing with individuals who exhibit signs of becoming involved in terrorist activity. It focuses on all forms of terrorism, but the two most prominent threats currently facing the UK are those familiar to British Jews: Islamist extremists, primarily, but also the far-right.

By attempting to draw people away from an extremist mindset, Prevent can potentially change, as well as save, lives.

Nevertheless, it can also be improved and in January 2019, Theresa May’s government agreed to an Independent Review into its functioning. As this was only agreed as a concession to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to gain support for another bill that was then passing through Parliament, there was a fear that this review could end up gutting one of our defences against terrorist attacks at a time where the threat remained so stark (it was a concern that I expressed in these pages at the time).

However, that is now a less legitimate concern because late last month, William Shawcross was appointed as the Independent Reviewer.

Shawcross has had a varied and storied career. Between 2012 and 2018, he was the Chair of the Charity Commission. He had previously spent a decade leading the freedom of expression charity, Article 19. He has also written biographies of Rupert Murdoch and the Queen Mother and books on Cambodia, Iran, and Hungary.

Furthermore, Shawcross has — helpfully, considering the subject he is about to take on — written multiple books on the importance of the fight against terrorism.

One of those, Justice and the Enemy, was a searing exploration of the complex moral challenges presented by law of war detention and the appropriate response democracies should make to terrorists attempting to bring about democracy’s downfall.

What’s more, an instinctive understanding of the dangers of extremist ideology and an awareness of the need to challenge them is something that runs in the Shawcross’s family. He is the son of Hartley Shawcross, the Chief British Prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials.

Someone of Shawcross’s stature turning his eye to Prevent’s functioning is a big win for the government. Still, this is the age of social media and so naturally not everyone was enthused by his appointment.

For example, there was a small amount of carping online by Islamist lobbying groups such as Cage, who have misread (or did not bother to read) Justice and the Enemy, incorrectly believing it to champion torture.

Many of these same groups were also unhappy with the appointment of Shawcross’ predecessor — the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Lord Carlile — back in August 2019.

They were so unhappy that they launched a legal review declaring that Carlile’s previously expressed support for Prevent “shatters the credibility of the review”. Lord Carlile stepped down from the role, ultimately paving the way for Shawcross’s appointment.

The strategy of some of these groups is quite transparent: they want to keep going through Reviewers until they find one who will agree with them that Prevent is an Islamophobic policy designed to discriminate against all forms of Muslim dissent and so must be scrapped.

This is a minority view, but one which activists keep repeating in the hope it will eventually become mainstream.

Wisely sensing that such critics cannot be placated, the government has done the smart thing: it just picked the best person for the job. Now Shawcross must be allowed to get on with it.

Robin Simcox is the Director of the Counter Extremism Group

February 05, 2021 15:05

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