How might the state’s response to radical right extremism challenge criticisms attributed to the Prevent strategy?

Last month, the Home Office published new data about Prevent. One part of the UK Government’s wider counter-terrorism strategy known as CONTEST, Prevent aims to safeguard all individuals from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. As well as appearing to be a direct response to concerns expressed about Prevent’s effectiveness and transparency, the new data also evidences the growing threat posed by the radical right to the domestic security of the UK and, importantly, the response to this – not least via Prevent and associated approaches.

While the new data does indeed do all of these things, what is maybe of most interest is the wider question the data poses: whether a response to radical right extremism – as evidenced in recent Prevent referral figures – has the potential to (cautiously) challenge historical criticisms attributable to Prevent. Questioned and contested from a wide range of different sources, Prevent has been the target of vociferous opposition over its lifespan. Charged with unduly targeting and vilifying Muslims, constructing them as ‘suspect communities’, and affording the Government a means to spy on entire minority communities among others, Prevent has not been without challenge of controversy. That this new data might necessitate the need to reconfigure or at least rethink some of this contestation should not then be underestimated.

As regards to the growing threat of the radical right, evidence is readily apparent. This includes the murder of Jo Cox – Member of Parliament for Batley and Spen – by Thomas Mair in 2016, the proscription of National Action in the same year, the terror attack on Finsbury Park Mosque in 2017 by Darren Osborne, and the conviction of Jack Renshaw in 2018 for plotting to kill the MP Rosie Cooper and Detective Constable Victoria Henderson among others. It is no surprise then that Max Hill QC who, in his role as former independent reviewer of the UK’s terror legislation, warned the UK Government not to ignore the considerable threat posed by radical right extremism.

What the new data unquestionably shows is that the ‘considerable threat’ referred to by Hill is growing. In this respect, to the year ending March 2018 there were 1,312 radical right referrals to Prevent. Accounting for 18% of all referrals, what is most significant about this is that it represents a 36% increase in radical right referrals. This is in addition to the near 25% increase in radical right referrals in the previous year; to March 2017. The new data also showed that in the past year, it was the first time that similar numbers of individuals received support from Channel across both Islamist and radical right referrals. A voluntary and confidential programme providing multi-agency support to those vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism, there were 179 Islamist referrals to Channel and 174 from the radical right. More important is that when considered as percentages of the total number of individuals referred for Islamist and radical right extremism, disproportionately more radical right referrals (41%) received Channel support than Islamist equivalent (27%).

As well as evidencing the growing threat posed by the radical right – which should be commended – the data also evidences the response to this that is currently underway. It is not insignificant that this is being achieved via Prevent and Channel. This is because such an approach has the potential to cautiously at least, challenge some of the historical criticisms attributed to Prevent not least the most and longstanding, that Prevent disproportionately targets and subsequently vilifies Muslims and their communities. While Government sources and various advocates have repeatedly sought to counter this by stressing how Prevent is designed to address all forms of extremism, the overwhelming focus on Islamist extremism and the lack of transparency and openness about Prevent have done little to placate Prevent’s critics.[1]

Far from providing conclusive evidence that Prevent does not – and importantly, did not – unduly target Muslims and their communities then, the new data and evidencable response to the radical right reflected in these figures does suggest that Prevent and Channel are not Islamist extremism-specific mechanisms nor that they are only used in relation to Muslims and their communities. That they are integral to the Government’s response to the growing threat posed by the radical right should then go some way to allaying contemporary concerns and criticisms if not necessarily any historical equivalent. In truth, it would seem that this has been the situation for the past few years. If once used to disproportionately target and subsequently vilify Muslims, then evidence is now readily available to suggest that things have and indeed are beginning to cautiously change. For some entrenched critics of Prevent, such a statement will be something of an anathema.

After a decade that has seen the UK’s radical right diversify, shift from electoralism to street-protest, and become ever-more confrontational and confident, the new data and the evidencable response to this offers some cause for optimism. In this respect, it is right to highlight the role – and importantly, the shifting focus – of Prevent and Channel toward a greater emphasis on tackling radical right extremism. While it has been too easy to condemn and criticise in the past, the utilisation of Prevent and Channel against the radical right not only has the potential to challenge some of those condemnations and criticisms but so too catalyse new thinking and debate about how best to respond to extremism of all persuasions. In this respect, the growing threat posed by the radical right – and the response to this by the UK Government – may have previous unforeseen impacts and consequences.

Dr Chris Allen is a Senior Fellow at CARR and an Associate Professor in the Centre for Hate Studies at the University of Leicester. See his profile here:

© Chris Allen. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

[1] It is worth stressing that many advocates and those working within Prevent have been aware of the detrimental impact this has been having for some time, many having also called for change.