Preventing violent extremism under the Coalition

Paul Thomas University of HuddersfieldPaul Thomas

This article is part of a series on the legacy and future of Prevent.

The Prevent Review of June 2011 was understood as having ‘solved’ Prevent’s problems. The charge that Prevent is about surveillance of Muslims was portrayed as a problem resulting from a damaging overlap between the terrorism-focused Prevent and broader integration policies led by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). The Review removed DCLG from Prevent, whilst Prevent itself was slimmed down. These changes have certainly taken the political heat away from Prevent, at least until the murder of soldier Lee Rigby, but have only obscured rather than solved the problems. Those are actually fundamental, and the only way to solve them is to bring Prevent in its current form to an end.

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The changes made to Prevent by the Coalition’s Review[1] were apparently well-received across the political spectrum for one, very simple reason – no one was satisfied with Prevent as it stood! Prevent was truly ‘failed and friendless’, as I suggested in a 2010 article.[2] That reality was exposed by the evidence submissions to the Communities and Local Government Select Committee Inquiry into Prevent in 2009/10.[3] Security-focused bodies like the Association of Police Authorities suggested that much Prevent money had been wasted on ‘soft’ cohesion work (although such work wasn’t actually cross-community cohesion work) whilst many representatives of local government and Muslim community organisations criticised the Police-led securitisation of the state’s engagement with Muslims that Prevent seemed to represent, and its associated damage to the community cohesion and equalities work that the DCLG led on. These allegations were reflected in the Committee’s recommendations calling for DCLG to focus only on enhanced community cohesion work.

This was apparently accepted by the subsequent Prevent review when it said: ‘The Prevent programme we inherited from the last government was flawed. It confused the delivery of Government policy to promote integration with Government policy to prevent terrorism’.[4] The solution proposed was an organisational one with two key elements. Firstly, the DCLG was removed from involvement in Prevent, so creating a clear organisational split between Home Office/Prevent and DCLG/community cohesion (or Integration, as the Coalition now terms it).[5] Secondly, Prevent itself was significantly scaled back, with funding targeted at 28 local authority areas only on an intelligence basis, and all funding carefully controlled by the Home Office’s Office for Security and Counter Terrorism (OSCT), rather than left to local autonomy. Together these changes were aimed both at rehabilitating Prevent’s image and making it more effective on its own stated terms of winning Muslim ‘hearts and minds’ against terrorism and ideologies that support it.


 “The changes made by the Prevent Review have down-sized this problematic policy but not altered its fundamental nature.”


However, I believe that these changes have merely obscured Prevent’s problems rather than dealt with them, because those problems are of a fundamental, conceptual nature, rather than simply organisational, and this can be seen in the research by myself[6] and others around how Prevent has actually been understood and implemented at local level. Here, Prevent has been experienced as ineffective because of its failure to accept and work with the community cohesion analysis of how stronger bonds of commonality and resilience against extremism can be encouraged, counter-productive because of its stigmatising focus on Muslims as an entire, undifferentiated community and a worrying securitisation of the state’s relationship with Muslims because of the increasingly dominant role played by the Police/Counter Terrorism Units in the programme. The changes made by the Prevent Review have down-sized this problematic policy but not altered its fundamental nature, whilst the parallel policy agenda of cohesion/integration has been deliberately sidelined.

Sydney_protestThe importance of community cohesion

Here, it must be acknowledged that the post-2001 policy move to community cohesion/integration has been controversial, fuelled by unhelpful attacks on ‘multiculturalism’ itself by Trevor Phillips and Prime Minister David Cameron. Cohesion has signalled an enhanced focus on commonality and shared values, inherently acknowledging the downside of previous equality policies that significantly reduced ethnic inequalities but did, of necessity, focus on the needs of and facilities for distinct and separate ethnic groups at the expense of commonality. The charge that the move to cohesion has resulted in a return to assimilationism is wide of the mark: as research on how cohesion has actually been understood and implemented shows,[7] the policy accepted and worked with distinct ethnic, faith and social class identities and sought only to augment them, not replace them, with stronger forms of commonality. Under Labour, community cohesion was clearly connected to wider and continuing race equality measures and had meaningful funding, with cohesion being a ‘re-balancing of multiculturalism’.[8]


 “Local Authorities understood the domestic terror threat, but didn’t understand how a ‘hearts and minds’ programme could be different to the cross-community work they were enthusiastically developing.”


For that reason, many local authorities did not accept Prevent when it was announced in 2006. They fully understood the real domestic terror threat, but didn’t understand how a ‘hearts and minds’ programme aimed at challenging extremism could be different to the cross-community cohesion work they were enthusiastically developing. In particular, national government’s demand that Prevent only work with Muslims, defined narrowly on faith terms and engaged on a very large-scale, was seen as in stark contradiction not only to community cohesion practice but to cohesion’s analysis of how extremist attitudes towards ‘others’ could grow in conditions of ‘parallel lives’. Nevertheless, Prevent was rapidly imposed from above by government and had some predictable, negative impacts. British Muslims understandably felt stigmatised by  an anti-extremism programme that only focused on them and which funded community development thorough anti-terrorism budgets; other communities expressed resentment of Muslims getting considerable state funding (a key trigger for the 2001 northern riots was such non-Muslim perceptions in relation to regeneration funding) and most local policy-makers and practitioners were mystified as to what they were actually meant to do in the name of this rather vague programme. The valuable evidence from the Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance programme[9] has shown that such uncertainly over the conceptual purpose of Prevent was even shared by officials and ministers at the top of DCLG.

What this national government strategy did do was significantly sideline development of local community cohesion structures and practices through the sheer weight of political demands to prioritise Prevent. Limited organisational capacity and significant uncertainty around the purpose and efficacy of Prevent amongst local authorities, as shown by their very varied responses on how to use initial Prevent funding, left the Police – which created over 300 new and dedicated Prevent posts nationally – in increasing charge of Prevent. Alongside this came the development of large regional Counter-Terrorism Units bringing together Police and Security Service personnel, some of which were increasingly playing co-ordination or even community delivery roles within a Prevent programme supposedly about community education and engagement.

Sir David Omand, the architect of Prevent as head of OSCT, was rather sanguine about this blurring of roles inherent in Prevent when he later gave evidence to a Parliamentary group:

You can’t divide government in two, into those people that go around spying on the population, and there are another lot of people going round to the population and they just don’t talk to each other. It just simply doesn’t work like that.[10]

However, the impact of this increasingly securitised nature of Prevent was toxic, as crystallised by the Institute of Race Relations’s report ‘Spooked’,[11] the allegations from which, along with associated media coverage, did much to prompt the DCLG Select Committee Inquiry.

Pauline_Neville-Jones,_Chatham House 2.0
Pauline Neville-Jones, former Minister of State for Security and Counter Terrorism under David Cameron

In the light of this political and media scrutiny of Prevent, the organisational changes of the June 2011 Prevent Review seemed to have ‘solved’ Prevent’s problems, as outlined above, but instead have simply obscured them. The fact that the Review took over a year to appear after the 2010 General Election was a result of significant government in-fighting, both within and between the two Coalition partners, over the future direction of Prevent. In opposition, the two parties had seemed to accept the conceptual critique of Prevent as being counter-productive in its monocultural scrutiny of British Muslims. During the Select Committee Inquiry process, Conservative spokesperson Pauline Neville-Jones said that

Labour continues to treat people according to ethnicity and creed. They see Muslims as people who need special attention and special funds…. Prevent should be aimed at bringing citizens and communities together.[12]

For the Liberal Democrats, Chris Huhne commented that The Prevent programme alienates and marginalises Muslim communities, and exacerbates racist bias and ignorant views’.[13] Such views did not survive the transition to government. The future direction of Prevent was signalled by Cameron’s ‘muscular liberalism’ speech to the Munich Security Conference in February 2011, where he used a counter-terrorism event to criticise ‘multiculturalism’ and supposed Muslim tolerance of extremism on the same day as the Islamophobic English Defence League staged a major march. The resulting Prevent Review struck a similar tone, cutting funding for Muslim groups viewed as not sharing ‘mainstream values’ and so representing the triumph of the ‘values-based’[14] approach that rejects pragmatic engagement with radical but law-abiding Muslim groups capable of influencing vulnerable individuals away from the path towards violence. The significant reduction in the scale and breadth of Prevent support for local activity masked the reality that all local Prevent work was now to be rigidly controlled and monitored by the Security Service personnel at OSCT in London, the ‘spooks’ directing what is still local, community-based engagement with Muslim young people. This centralised, values-driven approach ironically makes it harder for Muslim communities to clearly demonstrate leadership in the fight against terrorism.


 “The Prevent Review underestimates the ideologically-driven racist terror threat whilst over-estimating the level of coherent planning within Islamist extremism.”


The Prevent Review continued the monocultural focus on Muslims only by reiterating previous assertions that the greatest terror threat was from violent Islamism. This was supported by claims that while there are far-right/racist individuals currently imprisoned for terror-related offences, ’extreme right-wing plots have predominantly been undertaken by people acting on their own or with one or two associates’.[15] This came just weeks before Anders Breivik carried out the Norway massacre, acting alone but clearly part of a European network of racist extremism. This judgment of the Prevent Review and the continuing focus only on Muslims that resulted underestimates the ideologically-driven racist terror threat whilst over-estimating the level of coherent planning or command and control within Islamist extremism. The stabbing of MP Stephen Timms and the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich both showed self-starting Islamist individuals or groups acting alone and using crude weapons.

Whilst the negative relationship between Prevent and community cohesion/integration was a fundamental conceptual problem for Prevent under Labour, at least both policy agendas existed and were resourced. In contrast, the Coalition’s approach has been to largely end national policy on cohesion and integration. The Coalition’s policy statement on integration[16] was even slower to appear than its Prevent Review and was a woefully flimsy and disappointing document. It washes central government’s hands by virtually ending all funding, policy guidance and monitoring of integration work and throwing all responsibility to cash-strapped local authorities, whilst making no mention of ‘racism’ or ‘equalities, as The Runneymede Trust has identified. The claim that this change is just about austerity is undermined by the fact that the only national funding on this issue is being given to the Church of England and traditional (largely white) youth organisations such as The Scout Association.

Ultimately, the organisational changes of the Prevent Review merely mask the fact that, under the Coalition government, the post-Review Prevent is now an even more securitised and problematic programme than before, with the conceptual problems at its heart even more exposed by the retreat of any meaningful policy concern with community cohesion and integration.

Paul Thomas is Professor of Youth and Policy at the School of Education and Professional Development, University of Huddersfield. He has carried out empirical research into how both Community Cohesion and Prevent have been understood, experienced and enacted at ground level in the north of England. The resulting critiques of national policy have been presented in a series of journal articles and books, including the 2012 Responding to the Threat of Violent Extremism: Failing to Prevent (Bloomsbury).


[1] Her Majesty’s Government (HMG), Prevent Strategy, (London: The Stationary Office, 2011).

[2] Paul Thomas, ‘Failed and Friendless – the Government’s Preventing Violent Extremism agenda’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 12:3, (2010) 442-458.

[3] House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee, Preventing Violent Extremism: Sixth Report of session 2009-10, (London: The Stationary Office, 2010).

[4] HMG, 2011: 1.

[5] Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), Creating the Conditions for Integration, (London: DCLG, 2012).

[6] Paul Thomas, Responding to the Threat of Violent Extremism – Failing to Prevent, (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012).

[7] Paul Thomas, Youth, Multiculturalism and Community Cohesion, (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011).

[8] Naser Meer and Tariq Modood, ‘The Multicultural state we’re in: Muslims, ‘multiculture’ and the ‘civic re-balancing of British Multiculturalism’, Political Studies, 57:3 (2009), 473-497.

[9] Therese O’Toole et al, Taking Part: Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance, (Bristol: University of Bristol, 2013).

[10] All-Party Parliamentary Group on Homeland Security (APPGHS), Keeping Britain Safe: An Assessment of UK Homeland Security Strategy, (London: The Henry Jackson Society, 2011:107).

[11] Institute of Race Relations (IRR), Spooked: How not to prevent violent extremism, (London: Institute of Race Relations, 2009).

[12] Pauline Neville-Jones, ‘Fight radicalisation with inclusiveness’, (The Guardian, 2009): accessed 4th February 2010 via:

[13] Vikram Dodd, MPs demand investigation into Muslim ‘spy’ allegations against Prevent, (The Guardian, 30th March 2010): accessed 26th November 2013 via

[14] Yaha Birt, ‘Promoting virulent envy – reconsidering the UK’s terrorist prevention strategy’, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Journal, 154:4, (2009) 52-58.

[15] HMG, 2011: 15.

[16] DCLG, 2012.

The image of the Sydney Protest is included courtesy of Jamie Kennedy and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. The image of Pauline Neville-Jones is included courtesy of Chatham House and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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