Eternal Vigilantism

Glen Newey

The price of freedom, as we all know, is eternal vigilantism. In its quest to build the Big Society, the coalition government, like its predecessor, has determined to let a thousand grasses squeal. So the general public is regularly exhorted to rat on housing benefit frauds, bogus asylum seekers and in-the-pink incapacity benefit cheats, not to mention suspected ‘terrorists’. Shop a looter! posters currently grace Manchester’s Piccadilly station. As its trains pull out of each station, the ever drear Trans­Pennine Express enjoins passengers to report ‘anything suspicious’ to the TE conductor. I’m writing this on one of their trains, and there’s a bloke on the other side of the glass partition in First Class who looks a bit dodgy. He could be a serial tax evader. Time to tip the clippie the wink.

Stasification got up as civic virtue plays a leading role in the government’s Prevent strategy, revamped by the Home Office in June. Universities and colleges are, says Prevent, in the front line of the crusade against terror, the bogey being ‘radicalisation’. Its authors aren’t talking about bilking a British Anders Breivik: it’s Muslims they want us to worry about. Theresa May said that universities had been ‘complacent’ about the would-be terrorists in their midst. Prevent tells us that under a third of those convicted of Islamist terrorism-related offences over the past ten years went to college. As the attendance rate in the whole population is pushing 45 per cent, one might think that higher education is doing a fair job of deradicalising Muslims. May and her colleagues may benefit, on this showing, from a tutorial on the availability error and base rate fallacy.

Armed with this ‘evidence’, campus staff are expected to show their gratitude for the government’s axeing of the humanities and social science teaching budget by moonlighting for it as unpaid narks. From next year students can arrive with their £9000 fees in used notes and wonder if their lecturers are snitching on them for wearing a hoodie or beard. Depressed students are thought especially liable to ‘radicalisation’. Prevent pretends that this is all for the students’ benefit: they’re to be shielded from the risk of radicalisation as part of colleges’ ‘duty of care’. But of course no one gives a tinker’s cuss about the risks to students posed by poverty, drugs, cheap booze, predatory Christian fundamentalists or conservative clubs – unless they react by planning atrocities.

The upper reaches of the ulama have reacted to Prevent with gastropodal spinelessness. Nicola Dandridge, CEO of Universities UK, underlined that ‘universities must continue to be vigilant.' By contrast, the Universities and Colleges Union has raised the alarm about conscripting campus staff to inform on their students. Well, one might say, most things may never happen, and maybe this one won’t. In fact, though, it already has. In 2008 Hicham Yezza, the principal school administrator at Nottingham University’s School of Politics and International Relations, was arrested under the 2000 Terrorism Act, on suspicion of possessing ‘an al-Qaida training manual’ on his computer; Rizwaan Sabir, an MA student of Dr Rod Thornton at Nottingham University, arrested at the same time, had the same file on his PC, as Sabir had forwarded it to Yezza as background reading for his PhD application. A Nottingham employee had shopped them to the police after noticing the file on Yezza’s machine. The ‘manual’ was downloaded from the US Justice Department website and is available in the university library. Other materials ‘seized’ from Sabir’s office included copies of Foreign Affairs and the Middle East Policy Council Journal. Sir Colin Campbell, then Nottingham’s vice chancellor, did his bit for academic freedom, arguing that ‘there is no “right” to access and research terrorist materials.'

Sabir and Yezza were later released without charge. Now Thornton himself has been smacked for publicising the fiasco in a heavily footnoted 110-page academic paper at last April’s British International Studies Association (Bisa) conference. Nottingham suspended him in May for allegedly defamatory remarks about colleagues in the paper. Bisa pulled the paper from its site for fear of being in contempt of non-existent legal proceedings (it can be accessed via the Unileaks site). Thornton remains in professional limbo. Like Sabir and Yezza, he is, you might say, paying the price of freedom.


  • 2 September 2011 at 4:42am
    pinhut says:
    Shop a Looter!

    I saw two such deviants openly celebrating in the street today.

    (I understand their associate, Dave, is also still at large)

    • 2 September 2011 at 8:02am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ pinhut
      51 males and only five women on that last picture. Just shows who does the looting. There are a lot of turban wearers in that picture - was this a powwow between the looters and the terrorists? New fields for research here.

    • 2 September 2011 at 4:10pm
      pinhut says: @ Geoff Roberts
      I made a start on the report written by Thornton, and it's fascinating.

      One detail - The US DoJ (from whose website one of the students downloaded the 'Al Qaeda Training Manual), well, it was the DoJ itself that gave the book (which is not actually a terrorist training manual at all) that snappy title, as they figured that later they'd be able to cite the new moniker in prosecutions and sway juries with it.

      Cute, right? And that's just from reading up to page 15. Gripping stuff.

  • 2 September 2011 at 8:07am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    It's the insular mentality at its worst. I wonder how many of the arrests of looters resulted from the CCTV footage that must run into a few miles.

  • 2 September 2011 at 5:22pm
    Harry Stopes says:
    It's not often that I'd say that the music I listened to in my teenage years seems relevant to the LRB blog, but here's an extract from the lyrics to 'People Acklike They Don't Know' by Sonic Boom Six:

    The media skews the views that they see
    Bad boy breaking the law to smoke weed
    Chew up on a mushroom and pop some pills
    But will they go to hell for being such criminals? No.
    Manchester Evening News is wasting our time
    To shop a dealer go and dial 999
    Why would they wanna castigate the thin blue line
    To get Billy in his bedroom like a kingpin of crime

    I call experience the things you've done
    Not what you read about inside the Sun
    More than one point of view but I think you'll find
    They've aleady made up their so called mind

    They wanna lock em all up
    Theres only one way of life
    They want em in a chaingang
    And thats their own
    They wanna send em all back
    Nothing but a bit of discipline
    They wanna watch them hang
    And there not even f***** listening
    They read it in the news so it must be right

    • 3 September 2011 at 3:02pm
      pinhut says: @ Harry Stopes
      That's great! Harry. Mmm, you must be among the youngest here.

      I'm converted. The riots certainly had me spinning this again :

  • 6 September 2011 at 7:58am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Here's a quotation from today's Guardian from a certain Clark:-
    It's not yet been widely recognised, but the hardcore of the rioters were in fact known criminals. Close to three quarters of those aged 18 or over charged with riot offences already had a prior conviction. That is the legacy of a broken penal system – one whose record in preventing reoffending has been straightforwardly dreadful."

    He says: "In my view, the riots can be seen in part as an outburst of outrageous behaviour by the criminal classes – individuals and families familiar with the justice system, who haven't been changed by their past punishments."
    So that's the answer then. Slap these hardened criminals in jail, take California as an model and for the third sentence, life. There you go. The UK is just as much a class society as it was a hundred years ago.

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