William Shawcross was this week appointed as the Independent Reviewer of Prevent.
The Prevent review, that aims to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism, was announced in January 2019 by then security minister Ben Wallace. It was a concession granted by Theresa May’s government to some of Prevent’s critics in order to ensure parliamentary support for its Counter-terrorism and Border Security Bill.
Shawcross is a smart appointment to take up this task. Here are three reasons why.
Firstly, Shawcross recognises the threat posed by terrorism and has done more than most to bring attention to the challenges it poses to liberal democracy. His last book, Justice and the Enemy, provides a nuanced insight into the challenges posed by law of war detention and how to respond to crimes against humanity. Shawcross interrogates the most appropriate form of punishment for terrorists who reject – and, indeed, are attempting to destroy – democracy. Shawcross’s keen eye for the threat and his commitment to proportionality will hopefully bring much needed balance to the debate on Prevent.
Secondly, Shawcross gets why freedom of speech matters. Between 1986-96, he served as Chair of Article 19, the human rights group dedicated to universal freedom of expression. An understanding of the need to defend freedom of speech is a key issue in the debate over Prevent, which is so often accused of “chilling” freedom of expression. Shawcross is well placed to carefully consider these claims.
Thirdly, he has relevant experience, both of working in government and responding to the dynamic nature of terrorism and its threat to British society. Shawcross served as Chair of the Charity Commission between 2012 and 2018, a period where Islamists were abusing the charity sector in order to fund terrorist activity in Syria. In 2014, Shawcross stated that “[t]he problem of Islamist extremism and charities” was a growing issue for the charity sector and “potentially the most deadly”. Acknowledging unpalatable truths is a key quality for the Independent Reviewer to possess.
There is therefore every reason to believe that Shawcross will ensure an intellectually robust and fair-minded review of its strategy for supporting people vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism.
Where Prevent is doing vital work, Shawcross will hopefully point it out and challenge Prevent’s critics to provide evidence that the programme is as damaging as they contend it is.
Equally, where improvements need making – no programme is perfect, let alone a programme based on still quite nascent concepts, such as ‘radicalisation’ – Shawcross will hopefully recognise it and suggest how it could be fixed.
If so, the Prevent review – promised by a politically hamstrung government from a position of weakness – could still yet prove to be an extremely worthwhile exercise.