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Prevent review: Delays highlight a process in shambles

Release of Shawcross document on Britain's counter-extremism programme has reportedly been held up by a political battle
British Home Secretary Suella Braverman attends a meeting in Germany on 17 November 2022 (AFP)

Nearly four years have passed since the British government announced a review of the Prevent strategy.

The review has turned into a shambles. The Home Office first appointed Lord Carlile QC (independent reviewer of terrorism legislation from 2001 until 2011) to carry out the task. This swiftly turned into a fiasco: In a humiliation for the government, he was forced to step down because he had already expressed strong support for the programme.

The search began again for the job - and early last year came news that the post had been awarded to William Shawcross.

I have rarely seen an example of such cynical politics as the media barrage of leak and counter-leak that has accompanied the Shawcross review

Shawcross was a controversial choice for two reasons. A journalist and author by profession, with flattering biographies of newspaper tycoon Rupert Murdoch and the Queen Mother to his name, he possessed few obvious qualifications to carry out the job.

More importantly, the choice of Shawcross was very troubling for many Muslims. Shawcross had already expressed views on Islam, telling an American audience 10 years ago: "Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations."

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The son of Hartley Shawcross, chief British prosecutor during the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals after the Second World War, his 2012 book Justice and the Enemy defended the American use of interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, that are widely regarded as torture, as well as the detention of suspected al-Qaeda militants at Guantanamo Bay.

During his chairmanship of the Charity Commission from 2012 to 2018, the regulator faced complaints of institutional bias against Muslims, which the commission and Shawcross have denied.

Reckless leaks

Such a background led to surprise that Shawcross should have been given the hugely sensitive job of independent reviewer of Prevent - and anger. More than 450 Islamic organisations, including 350 mosques and imams, boycotted the government's review of the anti-radicalisation programme as a result. But ministers stuck by him, and this past summer, Shawcross handed his review to the Home Office. 

Since then, the shambles has escalated. The Shawcross report, supposedly crucial for Britain's domestic security, has been the subject of what can best be described as a programme of reckless Whitehall leaks. 

Shawcross Prevent role is Tories' latest salvo in culture war against Muslims
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One political editor, Edward Malnik, told readers that his newspaper, the Telegraph, had been shown the secret Shawcross document. In a September article, Malnik revealed detailed knowledge of the review, including direct quotes. He said Shawcross was planning "an excoriating assessment of Prevent, seen by the Telegraph".

Malnik said the report would warn that Prevent was disproportionately focusing on far-right extremism, quoting Shawcross that "the facts clearly demonstrate that the most lethal threat in the last 20 years has come from Islamism".

According to Malnik, Shawcross stated that officials involved in Prevent might be focusing on right-wing extremism "above and beyond the actual threat it posed", in an attempt to "fend off accusations" that its earlier focus on Islamist extremists was "stigmatising minority communities".

On Wednesday, we learned another alleged reason for the latest delay: disagreement inside cabinet. According to the Times, Home Secretary Suella Braverman was ready to publish the Shawcross review and to accept all its recommendations. But she also reportedly accepted legal advice to redact the names of individuals and groups accused in the report of "spreading Islamist extremism" in Britain. (If true, this makes it all the more irresponsible and reckless that the unredacted report could have been shown to a national newspaper.)

Cynical politics

Yet, this proposal has reportedly angered Braverman's cabinet colleague, Michael Gove, who wants to name these groups. According to the Times, Gove is "arguing that it was important that the independent report be published in full to give the most accurate and fullest picture of the state of extremism in Britain".

One Times source said Gove was "fighting his Trojan Horse agenda through this review" - a reference to the now-disproven idea of a Trojan Horse plot, when a group of teachers was accused of conspiring to take over schools in Birmingham.

Having been a political reporter for the last three decades, I am sceptical of the Times account, which was splashed on the front page and followed up in many of Thursday's newspapers. This is because it doesn't make sense. 

Britain’s housing secretary, Michael Gove, is seen in London on 9 November 2022 (AFP)
Britain's housing secretary, Michael Gove, is seen in London on 9 November 2022 (AFP)

It portrays Braverman as softer than her predecessor Priti Patel. She's not. It portrays Braverman as intimidated by Home Office lawyers. That doesn't make sense either. 

It bafflingly portrays Gove as wanting to revisit the "Trojan Horse agenda" that nearly cost him his career when he was removed as education secretary by former Prime Minister David Cameron in 2014. Gove emerges from this story as a Whitehall meddler determined to destabilise a rival minister. As a long term student of the "Govester", that part of the story at least is highly convincing.

One thing can be said for certain. I have rarely seen an example of such cynical politics as the media barrage of leak and counter-leak that has accompanied the Shawcross review. Lest we forget, the appointment of Shawcross was leaked to the conservative Telegraph newspaper before the selection process had even been completed.

Anti-Muslim bigotry

British Muslims are entitled to note that there has been no attempt to bring them into the conversation. Again and again, these leaks go to pro-government newspapers with a record of publishing false and bigoted stories against Muslims. 

This is not surprising. If the reports are true, Shawcross is advocating a hardline approach to Muslim civil society, with people who are acting within the law defined as extremists and driven out of mainstream public life as a result. 

The Shawcross report has been turned into a political football

The mainstream British media have tended to obscure this point amid their focus on counter-terrorism. Prevent is in fact a counter-extremism programme, where those deemed to warrant an intervention have done nothing unlawful.

Meanwhile, the Conservative government insists that the Prevent agenda is a matter of national security. The conduct of ministers tells a very different story. The Shawcross report has been turned into a political football, being cynically fought out in this latest episode of bitter Tory infighting and culture wars. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.
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