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  • Ben Tanguy

Gove’s new extremism definition: yet another misstep from a government on its last legs.

By Ben Tanguy

Will a day go by without Rishi Sunak’s government becoming embroiled in fresh controversy? Apparently not. Michael Gove’s new definition of extremism has immediately come under fire from all sides and marks a continuation of the Conservative government’s determination to restrict our civil liberties.

The definition in question expands the focus of the government’s controversial ‘Prevent' strategy to also include curbing “the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance”, and empowers ministers to blacklist organisations based not on actions, but beliefs. Government officials will be banned from funding or communicating with groups perceived to meet these new criteria. According to the government website, such an ideology is deemed harmful if it intends to “negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others”, “undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights”, or “intentionally create a permissive environment” for the above. Groups potentially affected by this new definition include fascist organisations, such as Patriotic Alternative and the British National Socialist Movement, as well as groups Gove considers ‘Islamist’, such as the Muslim Association of Britain, Cage, and MEND. The latter two organisations have suggested that they would challenge the government in court if labelled extremist.

Gove claims that this change is warranted due to the ambiguity of the 2011 definition. Yet, numerous MPs and non-governmental organisations have warned that the new definition is far too broad. Hard right Conservatives, such as Robert Jenrick and Miriam Cates, have criticised the definition for failing to protect people with unpopular or socially conservative views, such as anti-abortion or gender-critical campaigners. On the other side of the political spectrum, Sadiq Khan has stated that the definition will likely increase divisions, preventing much-needed debate and education with regard to contentious ideas. The Independent Reviewer of State Threat Legislation, Jonathan Hall KC, has expressed concerns that undue emphasis is being placed on ministerial power when labelling groups (there is notably no independent appeals process).

It is important to note that the definition is non-statutory and, therefore, does not criminalise these groups or designate them as terrorists. But the fact remains that an incorrect categorisation could hugely damage an organisation or business, not to mention our right to freedom of speech – all on the whim of ministerial decisions. This change is only the latest in a series of anti-protest legislation, a few recent examples being the granting of new police powers targeting protesters wearing face coverings, the Public Order Act, and the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill. Gove may purport to uphold this country’s democratic institutions, yet the actions of recent Conservative governments would indicate anything but. No wonder the UN Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders, Michel Forst, denounced the government’s protest legislation as having a “chilling effect on civil society and the exercise of fundamental freedoms”.

While this latest decision may at first glance appear relatively reasonable, ostensibly targeting fascists and Islamists, Sunak’s government has repeatedly shown its disdain for the right to protest, so why should we trust ministers to exercise this new power in responsible ways? Shortly before announcing the new definition, Gove criticised the pro-Palestinian marches in London in an interview with The Telegraph, reflecting the Conservative Party’s propensity towards demonising these protests as wholly antisemitic (Braverman’s deliberately inflammatory “hate marches” comment is perhaps the most obvious example). Sunak’s impromptu address on March 1 rightly condemned far-right and Islamist extremism, but his remarks concerning “mob rule” and pro-Palestinian protests undermined his message of national unity. These incidents represent a broader trend of repression and discrediting of entirely legitimate protests, with Gaza currently being one of the most prominent issues in the public consciousness. The broadness of the new extremism definition thus leaves it susceptible to exploitation by unscrupulous characters – of which there are many in the government. Gaza is just one instance in which Conservative figureheads have exploited fears of extremism.

Much like his pro-motorist policies and watering down of environmental legislation, Sunak’s self-presentation as tough on extremism is another mishandled attempt to redirect his fractured government, inadvertently exposing his willingness to shamelessly capitalise on divisions to bolster his own image. Three ex-home secretaries, all Conservative, have previously warned against using the exigent issue of extremism for political gain, so Sunak has naturally done exactly that. The new definition was changed without consultation, without cross-party support, and has inevitably been met with widespread criticism from both sides of the aisle.

This new definition is not fit for purpose and has the potential to inflame tensions during a time in which the UK is already facing shocking increases in antisemitism and Islamophobia. The Prime Minister is right to target extremism in such a febrile political climate, but this latest decision is botched and conducted in bad faith, threatening not to solve serious issues but to exploit them instead. Worst of all, the Lee Anderson and Frank Hester debacles have shown that Sunak has comprehensively failed to eliminate extremism within his party, let alone the country. As the Conservative Party faces electoral oblivion, it is clear that Sunak’s government cannot be trusted to adequately deal with the problem of extremism, and its exploitation of division will surely continue unabated.

Image: Flickr / UK Government



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