The Non-Linear War on Social Work in the UK: Extremism, Radicalisation, Troubled Families and the recasting of “safeguarding”

A guest post by  Jo Finch and David McKendrick

Social work has always occupied a difficult place in the UK;  its history dominated by Victorian moralised discourse, with lady almoners, later Charity Organisation Service volunteers, making decisions about who was deserving or non-deserving.  Social work thus straddles an uncomfortable place, being an agent of the state on one hand, on the other, holding ideals and values that places human dignity and self worth, empowerment and social justice at its heart.  The care versus control function, inherent in social work in many countries, continues to be challenging.

We are concerned however by a sinister turn in social work policy and practice in the UK and particularly so in England, that stems from wider global issues, namely, the war on terror, and the subsequent consequences of unfettered neoliberalism.  Our concern is that there is currently a “non-linear” war being waged on social work in the UK, and that this may be happening in other countries with neoliberal regimes.   We make our argument through the interrogation of two seemingly unconnected policies in the UK, PREVENT, a strategy to identify people at risk of “radicalisation and extremism” and Troubled Families, a scheme that identifies and works with particular families.

Post 9/11, the “war on terror” signaled a new type of warfare, one that accords with the features of a non-linear war, a concept developed by Surkov, a Russian Politician (Pomerantsev,  2014) and later developed in a story “under the Sky”, written under the pen name of Nathan Dobovitsky (Dobovitsky, 2014).  The aim of government therefore, is to create confusion, uncertainty and anxiety amongst the electorate. In this atmosphere of confusion, the populace cannot arrive at a carefully considered view of world and domestic events. Non-linear war therefore describes a new form of war, one without clearly defined geographical boundaries and a clearly identified “enemy”.  In this confused and anxious climate, the government imposes ever more restrictive policies, policies that often undermine democracy.

We argue that in this anxious climate, neoliberalism and conservatism flourish, gain wider uncritical acceptance and complex issues are presented in dichotomous ways.  A “thin discourse” (Curtis, 2014) subsequently emerges.  We can see how this manifests in a  number of ways; in the continued government attack on the academy and in particular the social sciences, through policy developments that cast people in particular ways and undermine fundamental tenets of social justice, and by subtle rhetorical discursive turns.  Again,  we suspect that these are not UK only phenomena.

PREVENT aims at identifying people at risk of extremism and radicalisation.  The definition of extremism within this document being:

“vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.” (H.M. Govt. 2014)

A recent law, the Counter Terrorism and Security Act (2015) additionally places requirements on “specified authorities”, including local authorities, schools, colleges, hospitals and universities to promote “British values”, identify people at risk of extremism and report such concerns to the police.  Alongside PREVENT, CHANEL, uses existing working arrangements between agencies to:

  • identify individuals at risk of being drawn into terrorism
  • assess the nature and extent of that risk
  • develop the most appropriate support plan for the individuals concerned

Whilst this sounds relatively benign, we have been concerned by various government ministers’ pronouncements that have co-opted the term “safeguarding” and the changing focus of front line workers, including social work, key task as to “identify” those at so called risk of engaging in terrorism.  As McCulloch and Pickering, (2009) point out, this is a departure from usual crime prevention strategies; rather, there is a notion of pre-crime, which serves only to undermine fundamental tenets of justice. This leaves us very uncomfortable, that somehow social work is now being tasked with policing ideological beliefs that may differ from so called “mainstream” society.  There is no evidenced link of course, between expressing views that may be deemed to be “not British” and subsequently engaging in terrorist activities. Of equal concern is the narrative being presented, either you are with us, or if not, and critical of policy discourse, pose a threat to British society and are “dangerous”.

Whilst seemingly unconnected, The Trouble Families scheme implemented in 2012, aims at identifying families with a range of complex issues. So called “troubled families” were to be identified in each local authority with payments by result.  Levitas (2012) argues convincingly that there has been a narrative shift, one that identified deprived families experiencing multiple concerns with “trouble”.  This was emphasized by the British Prime Minster, David Camerom, who in 2011, claimed that such families were a source of a disproportionate amount of problems in British society and that each family cost the state £75,000 (Gov, UK, 2011).  We also note recent trends that include families at risk of radicalization as an additional Trouble Families criterion in some local authorities.  What we see therefore, is a conflationary discursive turn in both political narrative and policy – one that conflates terror with “troubled” families.

The targeting approach being promoted is one that sits uneasily with social work values and labelling particular “problem” and “dangerous” populations using thin political neo liberal discourses, is of great concern.  By recasting social work as a way of infiltrating and targeting “dangerous” families  or communities is a deliberate ideological attack on social work – in other words, a non-linear war on social work.  The important question thus arises;  how can social work in the UK and globally,  resist such rhetorical discursive turns and securitized policies that serve to fundamentally undermine the inherent values of social work?

Post script

The authors, one based in London and the other in Scotland, utilised “whatsapp” (an instant messaging service) in the development of a paper on which this blog is based.  We noted a recent proposal by the Government to ban such encrypted communication apps  as part of its “war on terror”.  As we said at the outset, the non-linear war, seeks to impose increasingly restrictive and coercive policies – this seems evidence of precisely this.

An article is now available on-line McKendrick, D., & Finch, J. (2016). ‘Under Heavy Manners?’: Social Work, Radicalisation, Troubled Families and Non-Linear War. British Journal of Social Work.  Read here 


Bibliography and resources:

Curtis, A. (2014) ‘Trailer trash’, Adam Curtis_the medium and the message, 9 December. Available at: (Accessed: 17 February 2015).

Dobovitsky, N. (2014) Without Sky, Russian Pioneer, No.46 (English translated version by Bowler, B. (2014) available at): (accessed 6/3/15)

HM Government (2014) Prevent Duty Guidance: A Consultation. Available at: (accessed 6/3/15)

HM Government (2015)  Counter Terrorism and Security Act, HMSO, London, (accessed 20/7/15)

Gov.UK (2011) David Cameron’s speech on plans to improve services for troubled families. Available at: (accessed 21st February 2015)

Levitas , R. (2012) There may be troubled ahead: what we know about those 120,000 ‘troubled families’ ,PSE Policy Series Working Paper No.3, April 2012.

McCulloch, J. and Pickering, S. (2009) Pre-Crime and Counter-Terrorism – Imagining Future Crime in the ‘War on Terror’. British journal of Criminology, Vol. 49, pp:628-645

Pomerantsev, P. (2014) Non-Linear War accessed 18/7/15

2 replies on “The Non-Linear War on Social Work in the UK: Extremism, Radicalisation, Troubled Families and the recasting of “safeguarding””

Kia ora

Being passionate about environmental social work, I am grateful for the comments from the authors of the above article. Social work practice is concerned with community and Im convinced global community is playing a more prominent role with public service jobs. Terrorist and security acts are part of that public service that we as social workers learn to navigate. ‘Smoke screens’ on wars of terror, and the ‘disinformation’ that surrounds them will pale in the social work pursuits of social justice and equality. That Im sure of. Since no observation is truly complete without a recommendation, mine as a trainee is to put time and your community into an environment that’s fosters a peaceful framework. All peaceful communities have social justice and equality in abundance, lets strive for that.

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