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MPs queue up to support Quilliam

by Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2011-03-16 at 11.42.54 I was the first journalist to write that Quilliam is to close, but the think-tank's doing its best to defy my prediction.  For those who haven't followed the story, Quilliam is Britain's sole counter-extremism think-tank.  It's funded by government (though it's long been seaching for private and voluntary sector money to replace it).  The Home Office is about to end its financing - which mean that, if replacement money isn't found, Quilliam will be no more.

Paul Goggins, a former Labour Minister, led a Westminster Hall debate yesterday.  Every speaker supported Quilliam.  Julian Lewis spoke from the Conservative backbenches -

"Here is my one point today. It is that countering hostile propaganda is not a commercial enterprise or undertaking. It requires sponsorship and support. It is absolute nonsense to say that people who are brave enough to put themselves in the front of an ideological battle should be selling their product on a commercial basis because that somehow means that their organisation is more vibrant.

If organisations that are fighting an ideological battle do not get support from the Government, they will need to get it from private sources. I know of no organisation during the cold war that fought these sorts of ideological campaigns—there were many such organisations; I was involved in several of them—that managed to make enough money to sustain itself as a going concern commercially. Such organisations had to find sponsorship. As I understand it, Quilliam has been rather particular about the sponsors it has sought. It could have taken money from undemocratic regimes but I believe that it turned down those offers. Although it might have agreed with those regimes on certain issues, it could not agree with the way that they rule their countries and peoples. Let us not fool ourselves into thinking that if Government funding is cut from an organisation, that organisation will somehow transform itself into a profit-making enterprise. It will not; that is not its function. The more time that activists in a counter-propaganda organisation spend raising funds, the less time they have available to do the job of countering radicalisation and extremism.

I hope that the Government will have the good sense to continue funding Quilliam because I am a little concerned about what may be going on under the surface. On the surface, as the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles said at the beginning of her remarks, we have an excellent speech from the Prime Minister stating that we must be tough on radicalism and that we must not compromise. We must not pretend that people who speak with a double voice, as it were, and say that they are against extremism on the one hand but treat it softly on the other, are the only people with whom we should deal. Although that sort of speech makes all the right sounds, in reality Government officials are kicking away the props that support what is undoubtedly one of the most high-profile and successful organisations in the field of counter-propaganda."

His view was supported in interventions from Patrick Mercer -

"However, the Quilliam Foundation is based on not just common sense, but the historical precedent of using those who were opposed to spread the message back to our opponents. That is a very valuable tool; it is not unique but it is an extraordinary tool. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would agree that that must not be allowed to perish"

- And Mark Field -

"I entirely agree with the broad thrust of what she [Hazel Blears] is saying about Quilliam’s importance. Will she go into a little detail about the discussion she might have had with that organisation about where it sees its diverse sources of funding coming from if it does not come simply from the Home Office, and a time frame for when new sources would come into play if the Home Office were able to continue some of the funding that it is planning to take away?"

For the Government, Damian Green (whose brief doesn't cover security, but was replying for the Department) said that there were three reasons for the Government ending funding -

"First, Quilliam has, as we all agree, evolved into a think-tank; it is no longer fulfilling the role for which it was originally funded by the previous Government. Secondly, Quilliam has continually committed to broadening its sources of funding and to becoming more self-reliant, and I think we agree that that needs to happen. Thirdly, Home Office Ministers believe that the Department can no longer make an exception for Quilliam by paying for its ongoing running costs as well as funding specific projects."

He said at the start of his speeh that "there is no doubt that Quilliam has done important work in support of counter-terrorism efforts in this country" but also that "in some cases, that [challenging the ideology of terror and extremism] has not been done as successfully as Ministers originally hoped".  He also said that "we continue to believe that Quilliam is capable of useful work".  This muddled argument reflects less the scope of Green's abilities than the quality of his brief.

As Shiraz Maher has explained in an authoritative piece for Standpoint, Quilliam has had an impact on Hizb-ut-Tahrir alone that wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been formed and funded.  If the Home Office has evidence of a lack of success, it ought to set it out plainly.

Quilliam sources continue to insist that they've incurred the wrath of Charles Farr, the Director of Security and Counter-Terrorism.  (Whatever the truth of this, they've certainly been subject to negative briefing from within government.)  The Home Office, meanwhile, sticks to its last by arguing that taxpayers shouldn't fund think-tanks.  My view is simple.  I agree with Maher that Quilliam should be weaned off the taxpayer.  But there's an important difference between withdrawing funding and collapsing it.

Closing Quilliam, in effect, doesn't fit with the Prime Minister's Munich speech.  Downing Street should be banging some heads together.


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