Theresa May’s plans are a threat to British values
This is how David Cameron will address the National Security Council today:
"For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone."
This, incredibly enough, is how the prime minister is opening his argument for protecting British values. In fact, these words were released in advance to the media, suggesting he does not see the irony. What he has described above is as effective a definition of British values as exists. It is a free society: follow the law and the state will leave you alone. It is remarkable that a supposedly Conservative politician would not recognise that.
He now he plans to dismantle this notion in the name of British values. The government plans to interfere with legal behaviour.
The details are still not clear and won't get much clearer until the Queen's Speech – or probably afterwards. But we do know three things: 1) that the definition of an extremist is being expanded 2) that the process for how someone is officially designated as an extremist is shrouded in mystery, and 3) that the list of restrictions which applies to them once they have been designated an extremist is now extremely broad and intrusive.
What is an extremist?
There are many definitions floating around this morning.
Towards the end of the last parliament, Theresa May started expanding the definition of extremist to include 'non-violent extremism'. Those who spread or incite hatred on the basis of gender, race or religion were included, as were those who undertook harmful activities "for the purpose of overthrowing democracy". Groups which sought to "undermine democracy" or "use hate speech in public places" were also included.
This morning the Home Office sent me this statement, which is similar but different.
"The government defines extremism as 'the vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs'. We also regard calls for the death of members of our armed forces as extremist.”
These are very broad categories. Sure, they catch Islamic extremists. But they also envelop many others. The EDL and BNP would be included, and indeed the home secretary seems happy that they are. We may not like these groups, but banning them from organising or campaigning where there is no threat of violence is a very significant step, thick with implications for free speech and the power of the state.
On the Today programme this morning, May was even more expansive, mentioning those opposed to 'equality'. So presumably vocal opponents of gay rights would be included. An anti-gay preacher going down the high street ranting about the sin of homosexuality might expect a knock at the door, as indeed might a campaigning backbench Tory MP vociferously opposed to gay marriage. Who knows? Perhaps the Tories new equalities minister fits the bill. She opposed gay marriage.
But why stop there? There are plenty of political philosophy lecturers who sign up to the beliefs of Plato and his philosopher kings. There are many liberals who argue that a benign dictatorship in at least some aspects of public life is necessary to protect minorities. Should these views also be criminalised? They don’t believe in the 'democracy' which May asserted this morning was fundamental to British values, and indeed they go so far as to encourage others to believe the same thing. Anarchist philosophers don’t believe in the rule of law – or rather, they do not believe in this rule of law. Perhaps they need to be rounded up too.
Very probably these people will not be criminalised. Instead, the Tories will follow the legislative pattern established by Labour. Legislate broadly – then target who you want. Never mind that you are de facto criminalising a wide range of perfectly law-abiding people, never mind that you are going against the centuries old notion that an Englishman's freedom should only be taken away in very precise and well-understood circumstances. Just write up vague laws and cherry-pick your target.
How are we designated extremists?
Extremists will find themselves on the national extremism database. This database is shrouded in secrecy. We know it is managed by the Met police, and there is no judicial oversight over who is put on there. We know the security agencies are very secretive about who is on it and what is held about them. There was a long battle between Big Brother Watch, the Met and the Information Commissioner's Office over simply releasing details about how many people were on the database and what information about them was held.
What we do know is that it includes people who no rational person would consider an extremist. One Green councillor who organised a public meeting about the transportation of animals from Calais to Dover is understood to be on it. Jenny Jones, the green peer, is understood to be on it. When you grant the authorities secretive powers and a broad mandate, they will abuse it. This is not surprising. It happens every time. It’s as natural as going to the loo after a pint.
What happens when you’re considered an extremist?
The proposals going into the Queen's Speech next month will be very broad. Police will be able to apply to the high court to limit the "harmful activities" of extremists. These "harmful activities" include anything with a risk of public disorder, a risk of harassment, alarm or distress, or creating a "threat to the functioning of democracy".
That is a very low threshold. One person doing a sit-down protest on the street is potentially creating a risk to public order. Any blog post or newspaper column potentially creates a risk of public disorder if it is compelling enough. Any sentence uttered over a megaphone potentially creates a risk of public disorder. Once we get into whether it might cause 'alarm', the definition expands ever further. It is hard to think of an interesting sentence which doesn't alarm someone. As for the "threat to the functioning of democracy", we can all imagine how this government would approach a new Brian Haw, who set up camp outside parliament for years on end in protest at our foreign policy.
In response, the high court can grant a ban on broadcasting or a requirement for the so-called extremist to submit all publications for the web, social media or print to the police in advance for authorisation. Yep – the authorities will be able to tell people what they can tweet or put on their Facebook. There are various other restrictions about talking on campus, the supposed cauldrons of ideas, or promoting one's views in a public place.
So that's where we are. May is promoting powers which would allow people organising public meetings to require police authorisation before they can update their Facebook. And it's being done in the name of British values.
The key to the entire plan is in how vague the language is: it is not clear who would be an extremist, or how they are officially designated one, or who already has been, or what they would then have to do to suffer further restrictions to their liberty, or what those restrictions would be. This is very dangerous territory. May is proposing very real limitations on our freedom of speech, association and assembly, but she is being unclear about what they are or when they would apply.
Cameron and May claim to want to protect British values. The comments they made today suggest they are a threat to them.