No Smoke Without Fire: PREVENTing a War on Domestic Terror in the United Kingdom?

In a series of interviews aptly titled No Smoke Without Fire, Brian Gerrish and Debi Evans enjoyed a relaxed discussion from early 2021 onwards on a variety of topics affecting all of us in the Covidian era.

As winter 2023–24 approaches and the nights draw in, it’s time to snuggle up, light a fire and stay warm. But here in the UK, will your privacy be interrupted by a knock on the door from a Prevent officer wishing to interrogate you about concerns over an informal conversation you had with your employer, a neighbour, your child’s teacher or even a member of your own family? What is a Prevent officer, is it true that their training lasts a whole twenty minutes, and what powers do they have over every one of us, including our pre-schoolers?

In 2015, Brian Gerrish wrote an article entitled Britain: A Stasi State, which looked at how a simple letter from a pre-school in Cornwall lead to an investigation into terrorism, and highlighted the radicalisation of toddlers under the Prevent strategy. In the latest No Smoke Without Fire interview, Brian and Debi look in depth at how the Prevent Strategy in 2023 targets the entire population, including minors, under the counter-extremism mantra of Prevent, Pursue, Protect, Prepare.

Brian and Debi explore the potential impact of the Prevent Strategy on us as members of the general public and ask how the Prevent strategy—and its big brother, Channel 2021—are being intrinsically embedded into our everyday lives. Will you ‘Act Early’, and what are the ramifications of ACT—a convenient acronym for ‘Action Counters Terrorism’? Certainly, most people in Britain in 2023 are completely unaware that something as simple as a change in your mood or behaviour could, when reported by a family member, neighbour or stranger, be perceived as a threat to national security.

Would you tell on a member of your family if they didn’t hold the views of the Government? Would you consider a change in the behaviour in a loved one a sign that they were being radicalised? How confidential is a conversation with your doctor, teacher or counsellor? What could be the consequences of holding an alternative view? There are even more fundamental questions here. Who are ‘the authorities’ for these purposes, and what powers do they have? Does the Government consider the threat from overseas terrorist groups the highest risk to the security of the United Kingdom, or have the goalposts moved to include us, the King’s own subjects? No-one is exempt from suspicion, it seems, as even our pre-schoolers are on the Prevent radar. Brian and Debi highlight concerns in all these areas.

Following the 9/11 attacks, the UK saw a radical overhaul a new counter-terrorism approach. In 2003, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s introduced CONTEST (the Counter-Terrorism Strategy), to reduce the risk of terrorism to the UK, its citizens and interests overseas, in order that citizens can go about their daily lives freely, and with confidence. Embedded within the CONTEST framework was the Prevent strategy, which in its early years only played a minor role. However following the London bombings on 7 July 2005, the importance of the Prevent strategy increased as the Government turned its attention to ‘home-grown terrorism’.

The Prevent strategy aims to prevent radicalisation to terrorism by;

  1. Responding to the ideological challenge of terrorism;
  2. Preventing people from being drawn into terrorism;
  3. Working with sectors and institutions where risks of radicalisation are high.

In 2015, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, gave the Prevent strategy a legal footing and it was included in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act. This meant that specified authorities would have to have a ‘due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’. But what does this mean in real terms to us, the people? Which authorities hold sway? What procedures have been put into place, and who do they affect?

Having lived through a supposed war on terror, are we now entering the era of a war of terror, where we will all be viewed suspiciously if we hold different views to our government? When does a chat, online or offline, become a national security issue and considered a possible threat to society?

What defines ‘terrorism’ in the UK? What is held to be a secret, and what defines ‘secretive behaviour’? Even a tattoo of a symbol associated with an ideology may now be perceived as a sign of a ‘risk’. If you possess literature that relates to ‘extreme’ views, perhaps you are studying or researching; however, the mere ownership of material deemed ‘extreme’ could alert others to a malevolent intent. 

Are you stressed or depressed? That, too, could be seen by others as a harbinger that you may be being drawn into terrorism. There is no single checklist or profile in Britain to determine who and who isn’t a terrorist, so professionals are being asked to use their professional judgement to assess behaviour and risk. Do you trust their ‘professional judgement’ to keep the United Kingdom safe, or will these actions simply add more fuel to an already out-of-control fire?

Do you know the significance of the incessantly-repeated See it, Say it, Sorted campaign on our rail network? Far from being an inane tannoy announcement, it is a continual reinforcement of subliminal messaging, effectively grooming members of the public to remain vigilant at all times, not just for unattended packages, but for people acting in what you may perceive to be a ‘suspicious’ manner. But when does vigilance turn into snitching? When does public responsibility turn into malicious gossiping and rumour-mongering? When does conversing open a counter-terrorism file?

Over the past couple of decades, the Prevent strategy has inveigled its way into all of our public services, including the NHS and local authorities; and, with many other private companies, charities and organisations choosing to access training programmes, we appear to be surrounded by narks whose unloved task has been discreetly reframed into the modern British gentility of ‘safeguarding’.

Most areas of society involving direct contact with the general public are now encouraged to complete Prevent training. Do you know whom you are talking to? Have they received Prevent training? Can you trust the person you are talking to? Do you have watertight confidence in your young child not to say something that may trigger the teacher?

If our authorities no longer associate terrorism primarily with overseas attacks from extremists, what is it that are we being asked to look for in our friends, family, patients and colleagues? According to our government, the public is a partner and is to play a key role in preventing attacks and reducing loss of life in the event of an attack. Are you prepared to PREVENT, PURSUE, PROTECT and PREPARE or will you, RUN, HIDE and then TELL? Perhaps you will decide that neither script is going to kick in and will simply use your common sense, humanity and logic.

Is Britain in 2023 a Stasi state? Each of us has to decide individually. Brian Gerrish and Debi Evans’ No Smoke Without Fire discussion of Prevent may help.