I’ll go wherever you May Gove


Michael Gove and Theresa May are not the best of friends at the moment, according to a recent piece in The Guardian. Their falling out over the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ row about alleged extremism in Birmingham schools apparently dates back to disagreements over the (then Labour) government’s ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’ strategy launched in the wake of the 7/7 bombings. Gove favours so-called ‘draining the swamp’ tactics with regards to Islamic extremism – tackle the pernicious ideology directly, and prevent the radicalisation process that apparently stands behind it. As such, he seemingly dislikes the Home Office approach of building community partnerships and outreach programmes, and of even funding certain controversial groups.


Heaven knows I’m not one to willingly offer anyone relationship guidance, but in this case the disagreement seems fundamentally misguided: they’re both wrong. In fact, they’re both wrong for very similar reasons, and the realisation of this should, at least, give them grounds for some solidarity or reconciliation. Whilst Gove presents a hard-line approach to dealing with Islamist radicalism and Theresa May’s Home Office treads a more tolerant path of building linkages with (and within) the Islamic community to undermine the radicalisation process, they both share two vital assumptions that place them at two points on a continuum, rather than in different paradigms. These two assumptions are: First, that it is the religious ideas, beliefs, or ideologies themselves that are the grounds for radicalisation, and that countering this message with better (read: more moderate) ideas is the answer. Second, that government is best placed to conduct such attacks on radical ideologies. Both assumptions are false.


Prevent is one element of the government’s wider CONTEST strategy for combating violent extremism of all stripes, and was launched shortly after the 7th July bombings in the UK. CONTEST contains a number of aspects aimed at detecting violent plots, capturing would-be perpetrators, emergency plans, and the like – many of which we would consider traditional counter-terrorism policies, and the kinds of things the security services no doubt ought to be doing. But, Prevent was something different. Prevent sought explicitly to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of (predominantly) young, male Muslims who might be drawn to radical versions of their faith, and from there to acts of violence. Prevent has attempted to provide a counter-message to the radical Islamist doctrine; a message more moderate, more conducive to British society. The Home Office (and others) have funded various outreach programmes, and serenaded various religious and community groups in order to find partners to develop and push this message. If only they could turn away the vulnerable, impressionable youth from these crazy doctrines and ideas; make them see sense, and provide an alternative path.


There is a lot of intuitive appeal in such a tactic. It seems like common sense. After all, who in their right mind would join radical religious groups? We asked the same back in the 70s. Who would join the Hare Krishnas, or be married in a football stadium along with thousands of other Moonie couples, or die in a compound in Waco? It’s tempting in such cases to think that individuals who join radical groups – and here I mean groups that stand in some tension with their surrounding societies in terms of beliefs, mores, practices, and not necessarily violent groups – must be easily led, or vulnerable in some way to economic or cerebral sway, and that education and more moderate options are the antidote. This is what I have called elsewhere the Dumb-and-Malleable thesis.


Decades of research have, however, not just cast doubt on the DaM thesis, they have blown it apart. If the experience of 7/7 taught us anything, it is that even the most extreme do not fit the pattern of ill-educated, poor, juvenile loners looking for spiritual reward. Simply put, most adherents of religious groups make a simple cost-benefit analysis about membership. They weigh what they will give up against their expected benefits, and then choose a product that suits the trade-off they’re willing to make. Nothing has changed since the days of the Moonies. Despite tales of brainwashing, mass conversions, and the like, the Moonies were incredibly poor recruiters. So much for brainwashing. The Prevent strategy has bought into the 1970s tactic of trying to ‘de-programme’ susceptible individuals from their crazy ideas; a tactic that didn’t work then, and won’t work now.


Even if it is the ideology of Islamism that attracts individuals, we should be very wary about concluding that government involvement is in any way the appropriate mechanism for combating religious radicalism. Prevent aims to support local communities, organisations, and institutions to challenge the message of extremism, and to help provide that more moderate version of Islam as the most attractive or correct. Yet, such a tactic suffers from two problems; one obvious, one not so obvious but highly pernicious. First (the obvious): government pronouncements on the ‘correct’ version of a religious faith are likely to strike even moderate adherents of that faith as disingenuous, at best, or just downright insulting. Second, when the state funds or supports a religious view it actually provides a negative incentive for those groups to be active and influence and recruit adherents.  In the absence of state funding, religious groups are reliant, like high street businesses, on the contributions of their members (customers). They need to provide a service that their customers are willing to pay for. This incentivises groups to recruit in order to survive and compete with rivals. The providers of a government-sponsored religion, however, are shielded from the pressures of competition and the desires and preferences of the pool of potential and actual members. Given a fixed remuneration, funded groups will tend to make suboptimal effort and provide a suboptimal range of services, whilst investing significant resources chasing government money and the monopolistic position it brings with it. This is the phenomenon known as ‘rent seeking’, and is familiar from other areas of government services.


Of course, radical niches – and violent ones – still remain. The former, at least, are an inevitable part of any religious environment. Some people just prefer their religion that way and are happy to bear the costs; and someone will always provide the goods they desire. But, their numbers will be smaller where non-interference is the norm, and state interference only increases the number.


Both May and Gove would do better to abandon the Prevent policy as it stands, and to concentrate efforts elsewhere, rather than to haggle over the ‘correct’ way for government to tackle religious radicalism. The battle for hearts and minds is the wrong battle, and government errs when it sets itself that task. This does not, of course, mean government should do nothing. Other aspects of counter-terrorism are more plausible avenues: detection, deterrence, capture, prosecution, and the like. Similarly, government can avail itself of other laws such as those against religious hatred, discrimination, and the like to deal with instances of outrageous behaviour by those who utter messages of hatred or incite to violence, or against those who would turn public institutions, such as schools, into places that fail to respect equality of opportunity, that violate the rights of pupils and staff, or that fail to teach the National Curriculum in an appropriate manner. Moreover, if we are looking for sources of dissatisfaction that are the drivers of violent extremism, we might look elsewhere than just at religious ideas. If Theresa May and Michael Gove want to have a proper argument, then one of them should jump off the Prevent ship, and then they’d really have something of substance to argue about.



Dr David Stevens in a lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham.

Westminster’s Phoney War against Blackadder


As Britain starts four years of commemorating the centenary of the First World War, Blackadder Goes Forth, first broadcast on BBC1 in 1989, has – bizarrely – taken centre stage.

Conservative Education Secretary Michael Gove recently grabbed the headlines by claiming Britons mistakenly think the 1914-18 conflict a ‘misbegotten shambles’ partly because that’s what Blackadder told them it was. To rather less fanfare, last autumn Defence minister Andrew Murrison and Jeremy Paxman said very much the same thing. And before Gove turned the issue into a party spat, Dan Jarvis, Labour’s shadow Justice minister, argued Blackadder promoted an erroneous ‘pointless futility’ narrative about the war.

Blackadder is not alone in constituting that which Gove described as the ‘fictional prism’ through which we now see the war. The 1963 musical Oh! What a Lovely War, the 1986 BBC1 drama series The Monocled Mutineer and the War Poets have all been mentioned in dispatches. But it is the comedy series written by Ben Elton and Richard Curtis upon which so much fire has been fixed.

There is a long history of authority figures blaming films, television shows, plays or even pop songs for causing people to think or do things they don’t like. But why is there such concern about how Blackadder has affected perspectives of a war at whose outbreak less than 11,000 of today’s population was alive?

Gove appears to be on a personal mission to persuade the British to adopt a view of the conflict which emphasizes the ‘patriotism, honour and courage’ of those men who fought in what he describes as a ‘just’ war. But there is more at stake than that, and it is something that unites all members of our political class. For Murrison told fellow MPs that he wants the centenary commemorations to rehabilitate those political leaders the Blackadder Version presents as ‘willing consigners of other men’s sons to hideous death’. Nigel Farage – for the moment at least no friend of Britain’s current political elite – has even defended the generals from their sitcom depiction as fools and incompetents. While Jarvis conceded that Blackadder ‘serves as a powerful testimony to the savagery of world war one’ he still argued it distorted historical reality. Even more tellingly, at the same time Tristram Hunt attacked Gove for playing party politics with the conflict he highlighted those ‘patriotic’ Labour MPs who were recruiting sergeants for the trenches. If he suggested that more countries than Germany were to blame for the war , Hunt did not question its status as ‘just’.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the authority figures of the present want to rescue the authorities of the past from the comedic contempt of posterity. Nor is it surprising that critics of the Westminster consensus, like Seamus Milne, claim the Blackadder Version reflects the truth of what they see as an imperial conflict that sacrificed millions in the deadly pursuit of profit.

But what does everybody else think about the war? British Future, which last year tried to find out, discovered that that while 19% of Britons believe the First World War was ‘futile’, 33% consider it to have been ‘just’ – although between one-third and a half simply did not know what to think. On that basis Gove et al might stand easy although, having seen a more detailed breakdown of those figures, I don’t think our political class should stand down, just yet. For, the survey reveals, only 16% of 18-24 year olds think the war ‘just’ while 24% believe it ‘futile’: it is the only age cohort in which more favour the Blackadder Version over the one promoted by Gove and the rest.

The young’s greater skepticism about the ‘just’ character of World War One probably has less to do with Blackadder – first broadcast before most of them were born – than their more general mistrust of contemporary political authority. But if Westminster wants to worry about the influence of a television show MPs might be better advised to stop obsessing about a two decades old sitcom and turn to BBC2’s 2013 drama Peaky Blinders. Clearly aimed at a young demographic, it depicts a generation of men, brutalized by trench warfare and alienated from all forms of authority as a result, take on all-comers when demobilized, including a corrupt police force and politicians, notably Winston Churchill, willing to turn a blind eye to murder. Depicting a futile war followed by an unjust peace, if Peaky Blinders has any resonance with its audience – and it will be coming back for a second season – Gove, Hunt and even Farage should be very worried indeed.


Steve Fielding


This post was originally  published on the LSEblog (http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/archives/38945) and has been re-published with the permission of the author

Why Michael Gove can’t claim Gramsci as an influence

LOrdine-NuovoAcross ten densely packed but concisely organised paragraphs, Antonio Gramsci penned a piece of journalism entitled ‘Towards the Communist International’, printed in the newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo on 26 July 1919. Although the egregious Michael Gove, UK Secretary of State for Education, may claim Gramsci as one of two individuals that have most influenced him (the other was reality TV star Jade Goody!), there is little in Gramsci to relate to the content of Conservative policies currently ripping apart contemporary British society. Specifically in this piece of journalism, Gramsci poses the fundamental problem of proletarian revolution in the tumultuous years following the Russian Revolution. We can surmise that proletarian revolution was not a top priority for Gove during his time at Oxford University or writing for Rupert Murdoch’s The Times and that this remains the case today. In contrast to Gove’s social function, Gramsci’s article is interesting for two reasons: (1) it demonstrates Gramsci’s wider role in shaping the politics of the Communist International (or Comintern) (1919-1943); and (2) it clarifies that Gramsci was very much a thinker of “the international” referring to a grasp of the geopolitical circumstances of capitalism in shaping state development. How is this so?

Gramsci’s aim in and beyond Italian politics in 1919 was how to channel the revolutionary ferment of the time into the sort of organisational structures needed to accomplish revolutionary consciousness and power. My previous post detailed how Gramsci would come to conceive of the role of the ‘Modern Prince’ as the form to forge a new organisational and political party as a revolutionary agent. Earlier in his thinking Gramsci viewed the Soviets as the new institutions of self-government capable of expressing the sovereign autonomy of labour in the production and distribution of material goods in the internal and external relations of the State.

In one illuminating comment, Gramsci states that these workers’ organisations ‘must be further developed and systematised on a national and international basis: the anti-State must be organised’ within the productive process of capitalism in order to to control and immobilise it. It is worth citing him at length on issues of political organisation that go to the heart of recent debates on radical Left organising:

The Communist International is not a bureaucratic headquarters of “leaders” of the masses . . . it must consist of a network of proletarian institutions which themselves give birth to a complex and well-articulated hierarchy, capable of waging all aspects of the class struggle such as it takes place today both nationally and internationally.

Following World War I, the Entente Powers in Gramsci’s view had formed an enormous administrative and political apparatus that was ‘effectively the instrument of Anglo-Saxon world hegemony’. In anticipation of the global reach of industrial and international organisation – in today’s parlance transnational capitalism – Gramsci makes explicit reference to ‘the global politico-economic system controlled by Anglo-Saxon capitalism’. Recall that this is in 1919. As argued some time ago in my article ‘Waiting for Gramsci’, it is always therefore rash to assume that Gramsci refused the international dimension any constitutive status, as a causal factor, in his analysis of historical development and social transformation.

Perhaps, then Gramsci’s insights can still clarify today’s world in relation to his activism within the Comintern and with reference to his understanding ‘the international’, rather than him simply becoming a flippant reference point for the political class. In order to generate ‘teeming communist forces’ the immediate task for Gramsci was to organise ‘from the base upwards, from the inner reality of the industrial process, from the capillary sources of capitalist profit’. These are conclusions that surely have contemporary resonance and relevance like never before.

Adam David Morton