The British Government’s Prevent strategy: Putting religious intolerance at the heart of policy

The British Government’s Prevent strategy: Putting religious intolerance at the heart of policy

The focus of the British government and security apparatus continues to fall on Muslims. John Holmwood argues that the state’s flagship policy ‘Prevent’, and the narrative of ‘British values’ has imbued policies and laws, particularly in education, that discriminate against all minority faiths and undermine the agency of all parents.


At the Munich Security Conference in 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron declared a new approach of ‘muscular liberalism’. The approach, and its various iterations, were manufactured in think tanks close to the government, Policy Exchange, in particular. It has directed public policy over the last two decades, with an increasingly authoritarian cast that calls into question its claim to be liberal.

Although ‘muscular liberalism’ begins with counter-terrorism policy directed at the ‘Islamist threat’, it has come to have a wider scope. It has been used most recently to describe ‘anti racist’ activists as extremist as part of government attacks on ‘wokeness’. In this piece I will consider its impact on schooling and young people in England. Following devolution, publicly-provided services are the responsibility of the different jurisdictions, with the Westminster government, which sets British policy also determining how it is implemented in England.

Muscular liberalism lays claim to values that are held to unite communities, but it is divisive. The values that are invoked will be described as ‘British’, but they are truly expressing a form of English identity that scapegoats ethnic minorities.

An end to multiculturalism

Cameron’s speech was directed at what he described as ‘state multiculturalism’. In its place he called for a necessary intolerance towards those who live ‘separate lives’ outside ‘our values’.

In doing so, he was laying the ground for a redirection of the Prevent, counter-extremism strategy, delivered a few months later. This sought to address the ‘ideologies’ that might draw vulnerable individuals into violent extremism. These ‘ideologies’ could be either ‘political’ or ‘religious’. Accordingly, the allegedly separate lives of British Muslims – primarily, those living in English towns and cities – identified them both as communities at risk and as risky communities.

The mainstream values Cameron was promoting seem straightforward enough. They were principles of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect for, and tolerance of, those with different faiths and beliefs. They are not so much ‘values’ as procedural commitments that facilitate living together with difference. They provide scope for the pursuit of different conceptions of a good life and provide means for resolving conflicts among them. Indeed, they had been outlined a decade earlier in the Runnymede Trust’s Parekh report as the basis of multiculturalism. Now they were to be mobilised against it.

There was another tension in what Cameron outlined. The values were described as ‘British’ with the implication that they came naturally to white majority citizens, but less so to those who were first and second generation migrants. It would seem that they must be inculcated in them against their own traditions. This is something we will see was picked up by Ofsted, the body responsible for inspecting schools in England, when a duty to promote fundamental British values in all schools in England was adopted in 2014. Fundamental British values now underpin the new Prevent safeguarding duty set out in 2015 following the Birmingham Trojan Horse affair.

There was (and is) no evidence that British Muslims do not embrace those values. Indeed, when defending the counter-extremism strategy against its critics, its advocates claim that British Muslims do endorse them and, in doing so, endorse Prevent. This was recently argued in a report from Policy Exchange, which then went on to argue that Prevent was, nonetheless, rightly directed primarily at British Muslim communities. Moreover, they have argued that the much-delayed Independent Review of Prevent under William Shawcross should recommend increasing the focus on Islamist extremism and away from far right extremism.

Choice and belonging

There was always something ambiguous about the invocation of religious tolerance in Cameron’s statement of muscular liberalism. In part, it reflected Britain’s status as a country with a Christian heritage and history of conflict among its different denominations, where the Anglican church is the established church in England with constitutional privileges (in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland the churches are disestablished).

It is precisely this ‘settlement’ that has been placed under threat by policy developments over the last two decades, notwithstanding that recognition of Britain’s Christian heritage has been central to conservative political philosophy. Indeed, it is enshrined in the requirement on schools in England to teach religious education and have daily acts of collective worship. This is not restricted to faith schools, but applies to all state-funded schools. There are no secular schools in England, where there is an increasing proportion of children from religious minorities.

Cameron’s speech also indicated that tolerance should extend to minority religions whose presence ‘at home’ derived from the history of Empire. Here we perceive an ambiguity in the liberal credentials of muscular liberalism. This concerns the status of what we can think of as religious communities of belonging, distinguished from communities of choice. In secular Britain, Christian identity has become a matter of choice (rather than belonging). This is evident in declining church attendance alongside expressions of personal spiritual belief.

Most secular Britons are ‘post-Christian’, while mainstream Christian Britain – whether Anglican or Roman Catholic – now also expresses its religious identity under liberal ideas of choice. In contrast, many ethnic minority Britons express their religious identities within communities of belonging. Their religious identity is not only found in ‘beliefs’, but also in practices – devotional, ritual and charitable –  undertaken collectively. This includes British Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Jews.

This may seem a long way from counter-terrorism policy, but it provides a context for some of what has taken place in Britain in the period since David Cameron’s speech. As Jewish history shows, minority communities of belonging are easily ‘othered’ and persecuted. It is evident now in authoritarian regimes such as Orbán’s Hungary, Modi’s India, or Xi Jinping’s China.

Worryingly, it also occurs under secular liberalism of the muscular kind. This arises in the representation of the ‘nation’ as an imagined community of belonging. It is apparent in claims that the nation is threatened by immigrant outsiders and that ‘racial self-interest’ is not racism, but a legitimate expression of the identity of ‘white majority’ members of the population against foreign-born or ‘immigrant-descended’ others. Such ideas are also fuelled by claims that some ethnic minorities – those associated with minority religions – are living self-segregated lives, the core idea of ‘muscular liberalism’.

It is precisely because these arguments are increasingly part of mainstream right-wing discourse that Policy Exchange and other right-wing think tanks argue that Prevent should be re-directed away from right-wing ideologies and concentrate instead on what they call ‘Islamism’. They are also involved in claims that while individuals need to be protected against discrimination, religion, as such, is a legitimate object of criticism. This is the basis of refusals to adopt a definition of Islamophobia.

Participation denied

It follows from what I have argued that participation within a community of belonging is not a barrier to involvement in other forms of public life, including struggles for social justice and equalities of participation. Praying, or praying differently, need be no obstacle to equality in education or employment. An injunction to marry within a religious community is no barrier to friendship and other relationships across groups. Or what meaning is there to living together with difference?

One answer to perceived separation might be to encourage greater participation in public life, including through their own organisations. After all, the British values that the government promotes must include that citizens can associate and organise to promote their faith.

There can be no requirement that liberal values be held as the ultimate grounding of all values. If religion can be criticised, it can also be promoted. Members of communities of belonging within a liberal society are at liberty to regard their belief in God, and the obligation to live in a way that is pleasing to God, as the transcendent values that guide their actions.

In this context, then, associations representing Muslims – for example, the Muslim Council of Britain, which is an umbrella organisation of over 500 groups – quite properly describe their values as Islamic.

Why, then, does the government ,and its supporters in think tanks like Policy Exchange, insist on calling Muslim organisations which express Islamic values, ‘Islamist’; and, by that token, also describe them as potentially ‘extremist’?

Civil society organisations have the protection of the interests of those they represent as one of their aims. This may involve the criticism of government policy – whether domestic or foreign. There can be no requirement that civil society organisations must support the government of the day.

Yet Policy Exchange insists upon this for Muslim organisations, while having no similar requirement for other non-Muslim organisations.

It is enough that a Muslim organisation criticises government counter-extremism policies for Policy Exchange and their friends in government and the media to describe them as ‘extremist’ and as ‘enabling terrorism’. Significantly, David Cameron made this claim in his introduction to their latest report.

Policy Exchange also accuses Muslim organisations of being ‘unrepresentative’ of British Muslims, but who does Policy Exchange represent? They uphold their own right to lead and form public opinion (rather than represent it), but it is not a right they will defend for Muslim organisations. Liberal values, properly understood, do not regard majority opinions as more valid than minority opinions.

This must entail that Policy Exchange’s agenda is at odds with the ‘British values’, or ‘liberal values’, they claim to defend or espouse. It is neither liberal, nor democratic, to defend only those organisations that support government policy.

Moreover, it is explicitly authoritarian to argue, as does Policy Exchange, that Muslim organisations should be subject to scrutiny by a special department of the Home Office. And it is discriminatory to insist that Muslim organisations be subject to regular ‘certification’ to determine whether they are worthy partners in dialogue.

These arguments should be of concern to all those liberals who believe in religious liberty, as something applying not just to private individuals, but also to groups and organizations. However, it is a particular concern to religious communities and their organisations who are the focus of government scrutiny.

From the big society to the big state

The tipping of muscular liberalism into an illiberal position is also associated with an expansion of government powers. Around the same time that David Cameron delivered his Munich speech, he also re-launched the ‘Big Society’. This was designed to supplant bureaucratic government by empowering local communities.

One major policy was the academies (and free schools) programme which removed schools from local authority control, but it did so by placing them under the direct authority of the Department for Education, as are all the bodies associated with the oversight of schools in England – the Education Funding Agency, Ofsted, and the Teacher Regulation Agency.

In the past, the religious education curriculum and determinations were the responsibility of local Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACREs). These are organised under the auspices of the Anglican church, but with representation of other faiths, Christian and non-Christian. The SACREs are a locally democratic forum for the representation of different faiths (they also include elected members from the local Council and local teachers).

Around three quarters of secondary schools and a quarter of primary schools in England are currently academies, but a new Schools Bill has declared that all schools will be incorporated into Multi-Academy Trusts by 2030, with local SACREs being made devoid of all functions.

Under the Academies Act 2010, academy schools do not have to follow the locally agreed curriculum and the responsibility for determinations lies with the Department for Education. This is handled by the default Memorandum of Agreement signed by an academy school and the Education Funding Agency. This specifies adherence to the ‘default’ position of Christian collective worship, with responsibility for granting determinations for other forms of worship lying with the Department for Education, rather than a local SACRE.

In this context, religious education and determinations are monitored only with regard to minority religions where a determination is required. Evaluation by local religious groups, teachers and politicians, then, is replaced by scrutiny from the DfE’s Department of Due Diligence and Counter Extremism.

These are all developments associated with flagship policies of Policy Exchange. They actively promoted the academies programme which was pursued by its former chair, Michael Gove when he was Secretary of State for Education. They also raised concerns about faith schools – especially, those recently established to cater for children from minority religious communities – identifying risks of extremism. The setting up of the Department for Due Diligence and Counter Extremism in 2010 was one of the consequences of this report.


Schools were given the incentive that converting to academy status would mean that they would be free of the requirements of the national curriculum. In a short space of time, a new ‘national curriculum’ has been introduced by the backdoor, that of the requirement to promote ‘fundamental British values’.

This is part of the Prevent counter extremism strategy and it is significant to note that the requirement is incorporated under Section 78 of the Education Act 2002. This requires maintained schools to provide, “a balanced and broadly based curriculum which, (a) promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society.”

It is extraordinary that the moral and spiritual development of children is now subordinated to a national security agenda, Prevent, and one that is radically unsympathetic to religious liberties (especially those of minority faiths).

The Anglican and Catholic churches are nationally organised and have good relations with government. Indeed, the Chief Inspector of Schools and Head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman,  has made frequent speeches, including at Policy Exchange, to indicate that any strictures are directed at minority religions.

Her comments are chilling and indicate an illiberal inclination to treat government as in loco parentis and to set the interests of children against those of their parents. She argues that, ‘most children spend less than a fifth of their childhood hours in schools and most of the rest with their family. And so if children aren’t being taught these values at home, or worse are being encouraged to resist them, then schools are our main opportunity to fill that gap … This, I believe, was where the so-called Trojan Horse schools failed. Not only were there issues with promoting British Values in many of those schools, but in some cases members of the community were attempting to bring extreme views into school life. The very places that should have been broadening horizons and outlooks were instead reinforcing a backward view of society’.

She is careful to state that the problem does not lie with religion as such. Mainstream Christian religion was exempt from her strictures: ‘one of [the] values as articulated in the definition of British values is “mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith”. It is a happy fact that almost every Church of England school we visit takes that value seriously’.

There was and is no evidence that this value is not also endorsed by minority religious communities in Britain. It is extraordinary, however, that the DfE through Ofsted should regard the values of parents as potentially hostile to the values of schools. In truth, it is muscular liberalism that is hostile to the values of parents from minority religions. At the same time, parents and local communities more generally are denied access to any local democratic means of representing their own interests in the schooling of their children.


John Holmwood is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham. He is co-director with Layla Aitlhadj of the People’s Review of Prevent.

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