Britain’s prevent programme: an end in sight?

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Introduction Britain’s Prevent programme, described as being an education and community engagement-based policy approach to terrorism prevention (DCLG 2007a; HMG 2011), has been highly contentious domestically but also influential on policy programmes developed in other Western states similarly facing a significant threat of domestic Islamist terrorism (Neumann 2011). Shaped in reaction to the shocking 7/7 London bombings of July 2005, the importance of this preventative policy has seemed self-evident, given the regular flow of foiled plots and convictions in the following years. The murder of soldier Lee Rigby in May 2013 by two British Islamist extremists represented the first civilian deaths in Britain through Islamist terrorism since 7/7, yet was this comparative ‘success’ in avoiding further such deaths through Islamist terror actions anything to do with the focus and content of the large-scale Prevent programme? The immediate response of the Coalition government to the Woolwich murder was that Prevent needed more investment and must do better (Travis 2013). However, how can the effectiveness of this terrorism prevention, ‘hearts and minds’ educational programme be measured? How do we know whether Prevent has made the people of Britain any safer or, indeed, whether, it may have made them less safe? What actually have been the ambitions and consequences of Britain’s Prevent programme to date, and is Prevent a temporary phenomenon soon to end or a long-term policy response? The chapter questions whether Prevent, as we have known it, needs to exist (O’Toole et al. 2012). This chapter examines Britain’s Prevent programme and its operationalisation to explore these key questions. It argues that, whilst some positive results have inevitably come from such a large-scale programme, Prevent has been conceptually misguided and inherently flawed, so leading to counterproductive overlaps and contradictions with other key policy agendas, particularly ‘Community Cohesion’, the post-2001 British policy approach to multiculturalism and ethnic integration (Denham 2001). Here it is suggested that Prevent has both significantly securitised the national and local state’s relationships with British Muslim communities, so damaging the very ‘human intelligence’ (English 2009) needed to counter a genuine threat of terrorism and ideologies that support it, and alsoessentialised and reified Muslim faith identity in direct contradiction to wider policy agendas recognising and even promoting more intersectional, nuanced and contingent forms of identity. These problematic features have been inherent to Prevent and although there have been significant ‘turning points’ in the life of Prevent, most notably the supposed watershed of the June 2011 Prevent Review, it is argued here that any changes have been superficial and limited. On that basis, the chapter argues that Prevent, in its form and scale at time of writing, must come to an end, with the progressive, stated Prevent ambitions of partnership and education-based anti-extremism work developed in very different and more effective ways. To develop this case, the chapter first provides a brief overview of Prevent’s origins and factual development. It then discusses the stated and apparent ambitions of Prevent and the real, largely negative, consequences that have flowed from the operationalisation of those ambitions. It goes onto discuss the temporalities of Prevent, both the nature and meaning of key episodes in the short life of Prevent, and what this analysis suggests about the longevity of Prevent in a distinct and recognisable form.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCritical Perspectives on Counter-terrorism
EditorsLee Jarvis, Michael Lister
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781135077495, 9780203721971
ISBN (Print)9780415855471, 9781138221765
Publication statusPublished - 9 Oct 2014

Publication series

NameRoutledge Critical Terrorism Studies


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