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New Government Definition of Extremism - SACC Briefing

In a House of Commons debate on 14 March Michael Gove, Minister for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, announced a new definition of extremism and new government policy towards so-called extremist groups. SACC has consistently opposed the UK's counter-extremism policies and the new definition gives rise to fresh concerns.

The new definition and policy are non-statutory. They do not change the law and only affect Government activities. They only apply in England and will have no direct effect on activities of the devolved administrations unless those administrations introduce similar policies. But it is almost inevitable that there will be serious knock-on effects for organisations and communities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

A Government press release says the new definition is a response to the "increased extremist threat since October 7 terror attacks in Israel."

Organisations considered to be "extremist" under the new definition will be subject to measures that appear to be intended to deny them access to public funds and opportunities to engage with UK Government ministers or participate in UK Government consultation processes.

The Government says:

"The new definition sits alongside a set of cross-government engagement principles. The definition and engagement principles will be used by government departments to ensure that they are not inadvertently providing a platform, funding or legitimacy to individuals, groups or organisations who attempt to advance extremist ideologies."

The decision on which groups are to be declared to be "extremist" will be made by the Government, with authority presumably resting with the Minister for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Any legal challenge they might subsequently bring would have to contend with the deference courts usually show to government in policy matters.

Michael Gove named three Muslim organisations as examples of groups that "give rise to concern." They are CAGE, MAB (Muslim Association of Britain) and MEND (Muslim Engagement and Development). He also named two neo-Nazi groups - the British National Socialist Movement and Patriotic Alternative - as giving rise to concern. This does not mean the named groups are categorised as extremist, but rather that they may be so categorised in the future following what the Government's press release calls "a robust process to assess groups for extremism against the definition."

Michael Gove told the House of Commons that his concerns about the three named Muslim organisations are "because of their Islamist orientation and views."

He appeared to regard Islamism and neo-Nazism as equivalent, saying:

“Islamist and neo-Nazi groups in Britain are operating lawfully, but they advocate and work towards the replacement of democracy with an Islamist or Nazi society.”

 The new definition of extremism states:

“Extremism is the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance, that aims to:

1. negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or
2. undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or
3. intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results in (1) or (2).”

The definition is accompanied by Government guidance. The definition is open to wide and politicised interpretation, and the guidance tends to confirm a wide interpretation.

The guidance echoes Michael Gove's remark about Islamist and neo-Nazi groups. Taken together with Michael Gove's speech in the House of Commons it indicates that Muslim groups and the wider Muslim community are intended to be the immediate targets of the policy. The implied equivalence between Islamism and Nazism is inflammatory and potentially deeply damaging to relations within the Muslim community and relations between the Muslim community and wider society. It provides a channel for institutional Islamophobia, a catalyst for popular Islamophobia and a rationale for delegitimising normative Muslim views that may be thought by the Government to be signs of an Islamist orientation.

Despite the conspicuous focus on Islam, the definition could just as easily be directed against revolutionary and radical socialist groups and their allies. If the definition proves workable at all, it will be surprising if it is not sooner or later used that way.

The opening paragraph of the definition is problematic because very few ideologies base themselves on violence, hatred or intolerance, whereas many ideologies are said by their opponents to do that. It invites politically charged interpretation and may provide a way for the Government to take forward former Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s characterisation of Palestine solidarity marches as “hate marches.”

Point 1 of the definition refers to “fundamental rights and freedoms”.  The guidance states that this means “in particular” the rights and freedoms listed in the Human Rights Act. The Human Rights Act is derived from the European Convention on Human Rights and underpinned by case law established in the European Court of Human Rights. The Government regularly attacks both the Convention and the Court with a view to making space for its own interpretation of our rights. The new counter-extremism policy may provide an opportunity for it to do that in a context partly shielded from legal oversight.

The Government’s guidance on Point 1 says that it covers:

“Behaviour against a group, or members of it, that seeks to negate or destroy their rights to live equally under the law and free of fear, threat, violence, and discrimination.”

This is a different formulation to the one set out in the definition and does nothing to clarify it.

Point 2 of the definition, concerned with the supposed defence of parliamentary democracy, echoes the rationale that has in the past been used to justify undercover police operations against members of revolutionary socialist groups and people associated with them.

Revolutionary socialists aspire to a system that is more democratic and responsive than Parliament. Some Muslims aspire to a system that is more just and religiously rooted than Parliament. Both of them are apt to channel their political activity through organisations underpinned by their respective viewpoints. Both engage with the political structures around them in much the same way as any other citizen. Targeting these people through covert operations or ministerial boycott disenfranchises them because of their political philosophy. It distorts parliamentary democracy in the name of defending it. In doing so it entrenches and protects the most autocratic, corrupt and cultish aspects of the UK’s parliamentary democracy.

The first of the 5 bullet points listed under the Government’s guidance for point 2 is indicative of the problems. It lists as behaviour that could constitute extremism:

“Advocating that the UK’s parliamentary democracy and democratic values and rights are not compatible with their ideology, and seeking to challenge, overthrow, or change our political system outside of lawful means.”

The first part of the sentence is very wide-ranging, but the wording means that advocacy would only constitute extremism if combined with seeking to commit criminal offences. It appears to be either a directive against behaviour that would in any case be criminal, or a troubling invitation to scrutinise people who advocate perfectly legitimate viewpoints.

The third bullet point under the guidance for point 2 is:

“Subverting the way public or state institutions exercise their powers, in order to further ideological goals, for example through entryism, or by misusing powers or encouraging others to do so.”

There is no attempt to define “subverting”, “entryism” or “misusing”. However interpreted, this looks like a crude attempt to keep whoever the Government considers to be the wrong sort of people away from the corridors of power. It appears to be a re-warming of the obsessions that in 2014 caused Michael Gove, then Education Secretary, to act on bogus allegations of an Islamist plot to take over Birmingham schools.

The second and fourth bullet points focus on "using, threatening, inciting, justifying, glorifying or excusing violence." They cover behaviour that is in any case criminal with the addition of the references to justifying, glorifying or excusing violence. Glorifying terrorism is an offence under the Terrorism Act 2006, but this does not extend to other forms of violence. Justifying or excusing violence are not criminal offences. These terms might easily be intepreted to cover any discourse that offers a rational explanation for violence. No limits are placed on the scope of the term "violence." It presumably excludes violent action by state forces but might be interpeted as covering violent action by non-state forces, even in circumstances such as Palestine where international law recognises a right to use armed force.

The final bullet point under the guidance for point 2 of the definition is:

“Establishing parallel governance structures which, whether or not they have formal legal underpinning, seek to supersede the lawful powers of existing institutions of state.”

No examples are provided, but in view of Michael Gove’s obsession with Islam this might be a reference to Sharia councils. Sharia councils in the UK operate legally and do not supersede UK law. But the phrase “seek to supersede” might provide an opening for the Government to scrutinise the views and aspirations of people involved in the councils. The same wording might be used to justify scrutiny of organisations setting up a “People’s Tribunal” or a “People’s Assembly.”

Point 3 of the definition of extremism (“intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results in (1) or (2)”) is capable of very wide interpretation. The guidance makes it clear that a wide interpretation is intended. Extremist behaviour is said to include "providing an uncritical platform for individuals or representatives of groups or organisations that have demonstrated behaviour in either aim 1 or aim 2", "facilitating activity of individuals or representatives of groups or organisations that have demonstrated behaviour in either aim 1 or aim 2, including through provision of endorsement, funding, or other forms of support" and "consistent association with individuals or representatives of groups or organisations that have demonstrated behaviour in either aim 1 or aim 2 without providing critical challenge to their ideology or behaviour."

Any organisation that worked in a spirit of solidarity and mutual support with organisations deemed to be "extremist" would put itself at risk of being assessed as "extremist" under point 3. Organisations that do not depend on Government funding might not be too troubled by this prospect and might even see it as badge of honour. But many organisations are likely to see it as a serious risk. They may respond by avoiding any dealings with "extremist" groups or by punctuating their relationships with toxic and divisive disclaimers that would undermine effective collaboration.

An odd feature of the definition is that it could very easily apply to behaviour by the UK Government and the Tory party. For example, the rhetoric directed in 2019/20 against pro-EU campaigners and their legal representatives and the ongoing rhetoric against migrants and their legal representatives is clearly "behaviour against a group, or members of it, that seeks to negate or destroy their rights to live equally under the law and free of fear, threat, violence, and discrimination", as set out in the guidance to point 1 of the definition. The Government is presumably untroubled by this because it will be the arbiter of the new definition.

The final section of the guidance, headed "Further Context", states:

"The lawful exercise of a person’s rights (including freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression, freedom of association, or the right to engage in lawful debate, protest or campaign for a change in the law) is not extremism. Simply holding a belief, regardless of its substance, is rightly protected under law."

If taken seriously, this appears to mean that little or none of the non-criminal behaviour falling within the scope of the definition should in fact be considered as extremism. If the Government intends the new policy to be something more than political grandstanding, it presumably either intends to interpret this part of the guidance in an odd way, or it intends the policy announcement to have a chilling effect on political activity in the Muslim community even if no Muslim organisations are in the end assessed as extremist.

It remains to be seen what the real effects of the new definition will turn out to be.

Photo: Michael Gove hosting a garden reception to mark the 75th anniversary of the Windrush generation at 10 Downing Street, 20 June 2023. © UK Government, some rights reserved.