FUNDING OF THE QUILLIAM FOUNDATION – 15 March 2011

Dr Julian Lewis: It is a privilege to follow that outstanding speech by the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears). Her work and that of the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) as Ministers on this topic excited the admiration of many of us when we were on the Opposition Benches. It continues to excite my admiration now that they are in opposition, but still fighting just as hard on this vital topic as they ever did when they were Ministers.

During the 1990s, I occasionally had the privilege of taking part in courses on public speaking, oratory and campaigning techniques with another member of the House of Commons who is now Mr Speaker. He always impressed on everyone who came to our courses that when making a speech one should have, at most, two main points, but preferably only one, with which to belabour one’s listeners over and over again, so that if they remembered nothing else about what one had said, they would remember that one point.

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 line 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.

I use those words deliberately because this is a propaganda war involving propaganda by those who seek to radicalise, and counter-propaganda by those who seek to defeat and undermine their campaigns. That sort of work must not be undermined by paid Government officials at a time when the head of the Government says that we ought to do more of it.

Something strange is going on and I think I know what it is. Reference was made earlier to the important conference being held today at the Royal United Services Institute. I had hoped to attend that conference this morning, but I felt that this debate was rather more important. My mind went back to a previous conference held quite a few years ago at the RUSI, and a rather impressive Government speaker on counter-terrorism. I subsequently sought a briefing from that speaker, and the Government gave permission for me to have one. During the course of the conversation, I made the point that one clearly had to encourage moderate Muslims to stand up against minority activists, just as in so many other fields. Particularly during the Cold War and student radicalism on campuses in other decades, it had been necessary for moderates to stand up for the silent majority against the noisy activist and – above all – unrepresentative minority. I was intrigued by what the expert official said. He replied:

“That’s absolutely true: there is a gap between those who hold moderate values and those who hold extreme values. However, there is another gap between those who hold extreme values and those – a much er group – who are willing to turn their extreme values and views into extreme and violent action.”

It seems that the Government – perhaps I should say the Establishment, as that remains the same when Governments change – have primarily signed up to focusing on the division between extremist people who do not intend to be violent, and extremist people who intend to be violent. There is some value in that approach, but I do not believe that it should be exclusive. If we depend on people in the Muslim community with extreme views to stand up against others from that community with extreme views who want to be violent, we will not get a happy outcome. We must promote moderate values in the Muslim community. Therefore, we need an organisation that is prepared not only to attack violent extremism, but to counter the pernicious ideology of those who might not be planning violence, but who foster an extreme ideological environment where some people will absorb sufficiently illiberal notions to end up turning to violence.

I am concerned about this issue because there are a couple of ways in which counter-propaganda organisations can work. Some such organisations can, and should, concentrate on changing minds. If we wish to try that, it is important to persuade people who are inclined towards fundamentalism that they are wrong, and to have organisations that are perhaps tolerated more happily than Quilliam within the Muslim ideological community. Those organisations can work on trying to change the minds of those who are already radical.

There is, however, another more important element that must not be neglected. We hope, and I genuinely believe, that the majority of people in the Muslim community – I would like to think the overwhelming majority – hold moderate beliefs and are not extremist at all. The problem is that of the three sectors – the moderate community, the extreme community that is not violent and the extreme splinter community that is violent – the Government machine focuses too much on the second two categories, to the exclusion of the first. The only way we will win an ideological battle or war is by mobilising the silent majority. The silent majority is a hackneyed phrase because we use it a lot. Nevertheless, we use it a lot because it is true; it has to be true, and if it were not we might as well give up on civilisation straight away. We need groups that are not necessarily involved in trying to change minds, but rather in trying to reinforce moderate views that already exist.

Tom Brake: Does the hon. Gentleman believe that it is unrealistic to expect Quilliam to secure funds from trusts or benefactors rather than from the Government?

Dr Lewis: It is not unrealistic and I made that explicit at the beginning of my speech. I said that if one does not get funds from the Government, one must get them from another sponsor. Ideally, one should have a range of funders, and the Government ought to be a part of that. My point is that if the Government have any sense, they will not withdraw funding in such a way that an organisation will collapse. If they believe that the organisation’s work is of sufficient value, they should ensure that it has secure funding before they begin to draw down their own funding stream. It is as simple as that.

I will conclude with one further point. It is my second point and I do not mind if hon. Members do not remember it, as long as they remember my first point. There are two types of counter-propaganda. There is counter-propaganda that is designed to persuade people to change their minds, and there is counter-propaganda that is designed to reinforce the moderate views that the silent majority already hold.

I shall give an example. When I was a youngster in the 1960s, a huge argument was going on about whether this country should continue to be defended by a nuclear deterrent. I was sure that it should continue to be defended by a nuclear deterrent, but time after time I would see people on the television and hear people on the radio saying, “No, that isn’t necessary.” I began to think, “Well, I’m only a teenager. What do I know about this?” I began to doubt my own commitment. Then one day, someone from another country was being interviewed on television and he made such a convincing case for the nuclear deterrent, and articulated so much better than I could, as a youngster, the case for what I believed already, that I thought, “Fine. I’m okay. That’s all I need to know. At least one other person in the world, brainier and more articulate than I am, has come to the same conclusion for the same reason.”

I believe that groups such as Quilliam both need to do the type of work that I have described and actually do that type of work. There are moderate Muslims who, because of the way in which radicalism and extremism dominate the narrative, will begin to doubt themselves – even though their own views are moderate. It is the job of a group such as Quilliam to show that when the extremists say, “We are mainstream and you are un-Islamic,” in fact the reverse is the case. To get that message across, people must be knowledgeable and professional, must have a huge amount of detail at their disposal and must have access to the airwaves, the printing presses and the internet.

I am very sorry that the Government, because they believe in persuading people to change their minds, are to kick away the support from an organisation that is dedicated to reinforcing people who do not need to change their minds, but need to be encouraged to speak up and need to be reassured that they are right and the extremists are wrong. This is not a commercial enterprise: it is a political fight. If the Government want to take the line that the organisation must be self-funding and self-supporting, let us ask ourselves this final question. How many Departments would be able to do their work if they had to raise the money to fund it themselves as a result of the product of their work, rather than their income stream coming from taxation? I think we would find that not a single Department – except perhaps the Ministry of Fun – would survive such a proposition.

I believe that Quilliam’s work is essential. I believe that it is non-commercial. It has been supported thanks to the work of the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles and of the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East, whom I congratulate on initiating this very important debate. It is no coincidence that more than half the House of Commons members of the Intelligence and Security Committee are here making this case today, even though we are making it in our personal capacities, not as members of that Committee. I shall leave time for the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Pat McFadden) to speak. I hope that the Government will take our message extremely seriously.