It’s not just Islamists and the SWP who criticise the government’s Prevent programme. In some ways, the targeting of Islamism is just a welcome bonus for the Conservatives, since the core point is to increase the government’s ideological control over education and other areas where children are present.
Prevent was “revised” in 2011 along with the launch of two other projects, the promotion of “British Values” and the deputisation of teachers, social workers, healthcare workers and so on as immigration officials.
All three of these measures were part of an increasingly jingoistic tone forced on education, instilling nationalism and allowing the government and the Home Secretary a veto on what could or couldn’t be said and taught.
The link between Prevent and the chauvinist British Values project was made explicit by a poster in my college that said one way to prevent “radicalisation” was to “value and respect all members of the College and wider community by promoting British Values”.
British Values meant posters on the walls in every classroom at my college looked like far-right election leaflets, preaching “British values” on a Union Jack background.
When I was at college, I took voluntary Prevent training as part of being on the Students’ Union. The training was particularly vague. It essentially asked me to keep an eye on any classmates who have “out-there” opinions, and to recruit friends to keep an eye on fellow students too.
The training itself was called Zak, developed by the University of Kent. It featured a young white man who went to university, and became increasingly distant from his family and friends back home who didn’t understand him, and got increasingly involved with radical politics.
I think most teenagers and young students could find a familiar story. It’s not sinister to explore new ideas or find new groups of friends. Even the security officer who conducted my training agreed that it was pretty alarmist. Elsewhere in the college, posters were put up warning about people who “spent a lot of time online” or “had a sudden change in fashion and/or opinion” “had mental health problems or anxiety” and “talked about politics a lot”.
Being A Level Politics students, we joked at the time that the checklist would cover over half our class.
Also, while at college, a friend of mine was suspended under investigation for a few days for singing in Arabic. Other students had overheard him in the cafeteria or somewhere, and reported him under suspicion.
Singing was enough to get done under Prevent, apparently. His suspension lasted until someone who spoke Arabic could be found to confirm he wasn’t a threat, since our college wasn’t especially diverse. The guy didn’t even speak Arabic himself, it was just an earworm song he’d picked up when visiting Israel.
I never found out if he got referred to the police, but apparently his place at the college was threatened for a while. I do wonder what would’ve happened if he had been from a Muslim background. Maybe he’d be on one of the secret Prevent watchlists to this day, and not even know.
There were also a few alt-right students at my college who were seduced by 4chan subcultures and memes, and they went about unhindered, recruiting more people to their patchwork fascism made up of Strasserism, antisemitism, racialism and American Neo-Nazi/KKK ideology. The worst that happened is one politics lecturer kept a student behind... to discuss the ideological finer points of blood and soil, so as to help with a lesson plan on fascism.
Apparently, their spending hours on Discord with future alt-right murderers wasn’t cause for concern. Their violent politics were a curio. I wish I had felt empowered to deal with the radicalisation of my friends, but Prevent wasn’t the process I needed.
Morally and politically, we cannot support the state setting the agenda for thought, and we cannot support the criminalisation of ideas in classrooms.