The British government has published its counter-extremism strategy, unencumbered by the Liberal Democrats who held a similar strategy up for five years of coalition. There is much to be said about this strategy, a strategy which is to my mind the most advanced, careful and rigorous counter-extremism strategy anywhere in the Western world. While the US government remains unwilling to even identify the major source of extremism in the world today, the UK government is taking a lead in being willing to both identify and tackle Islamist extremism as the major source of concern, while acknowledging that other concerning types of extremism also exist. Crucially the strategy strengthens the powers of Ofcom, the Charity Commission and other bodies to do the job they need to do.
Of course some of the usual suspects – including the Muslim Council of Britain – have complained about the strategy before they can even have read the document (available here), let alone fully absorbed its contents. But that is fine – it is par for the course that such groups will object to a strategy which seeks to tackle this problem.
Nevertheless, any close reading shows that there certainly are objections to make about the strategy – though far from the wholesale ones various self-appointed Muslim community spokesmen have suggested. For instance it is not clear how the fourth chapter’s ‘Building a partnership with all those opposed to extremism’ will avoid the pitfalls fallen into by the Labour government’s Prevent strategy. Whenever central government announces that it has money to dole out in this area it is highly likely that a proportion (or perhaps in the case of Prevent a majority) of that money will either fall through peoples’ fingers or be used to actually advance the sectarian agenda it is intended to tackle.
But that is not the main objection. The main problem in the strategy is in the fifth chapter. That is where you can read of new government proposals to ‘disrupt’ extremists. This includes a proposal to, ‘ban extremist organisations that promote hatred and draw people into extremism; restrict the harmful activities of the most dangerous extremist individuals; and restrict access to premises which are repeatedly used to support extremism.’
Now as it happens this country already has extremely tough laws on incitement, up to and including the controversial 2006 laws on ‘glorification’. The problem with what the government is proposing is that it could so easily walk directly against this country’s traditions and customs on freedom of speech. To be fair the government are obviously very aware of this, because this section of the strategy probably includes more caveats and assurances than any other. Yet any concerns here are certainly legitimate. Much though we may regret the fact, laws in this country are not always used for the purposes they were intended. I am more than happy for the government to be concerned about people who wish to destroy our society, but the problem with these ‘disruption’ orders are that they risk bringing the bar of government attention lower than it should be in any liberal society.
The central problem around which the government is grappling is what you do with people who are not violent themselves, and not necessarily advocating violence, but who are obviously trying to fundamentally change your society by preaching hatred and division. Now my own answer to this is two-fold. A robust civil society would treat such people with the discourtesy that it reserves for any other group of people who are exceptionally hateful. At the very least you don’t give them a helping hand. So if I have a community hall and the BNP want to borrow it for a meeting then I say ‘no’. And if some Islamist group asks to use it for a meeting I also say ‘no’. There is no right for them to borrow my hall, I don’t like them and they will have to hold their meetings elsewhere.
That is how civil society would normally work to help address the problem government is grappling with. But of course civil societal pushback against the Islamists in Britain in recent years has been massively hampered by left-wingers who are confused and think that opposing Islamic extremism is ‘racist’ but also by an ignorance across the political spectrum about what Islamic extremism’s goals and methods actually are. So bolstering civil society is a very important part of solving this problem – as the government acknowledges in this strategy – and success cannot really occur without it.
But the second thing that hasn’t worked in Britain in recent years is that government hasn’t managed to do those things that government should do. Not least in failing to use laws that already exist. For instance it is a crime to belong to a proscribed organisation. But this law has only been used on a couple of occasions, and it is demonstrably the case that there are people wandering around our streets who are well-known members of very-much banned organisations. Likewise it seems clear to me that while you may not imprison everybody who preaches against the state, there is no clear reason why we as a nation should pay people benefits to preach against the state. Most of the prominent hate preachers in recent years have been living off benefits and have not, to the best of my knowledge, been told that if they don’t get a job then the benefits will stop. If government wonders what really pisses people off – this is a very good encapsulation.
This should be the simplest and most obvious idea imaginable: don’t give money to people who want to destroy you. But the government hasn’t succeeded in dealing with such people, and it isn’t clear that this new strategy will get them any closer. If some crazed Islamist preacher still gets all his expenses and bills paid for by the state then it’s a bit rich for the government to lecture people about who they should or should not have to speak in their events spaces.
This is obviously an area of some difficultly which is why successive governments have struggled about in it. But it is a disturbing thing that when a problem arises it is so often free speech which is leant on rather than anything else. Why should the existence of crazy preachers treading just within the law cause the bar to be lowered on what constitutes illegal speech, or speech which attracts the attention of government? Particularly when we as a society are so obviously failing to meet such people with the laws which are already in place and the standards any sane society would try to apply. If the government wants decent laws to tackle the Islamists they could do far worse than revisiting and reviving our treason and sedition laws. These are laws which most states have had at some point, are tools which any state should have at its disposal if they want to survive and are obviously the area around which many of the people who are of concern to the government are moving. But instead it is speech and expression which is being leant upon.
I predict that these disruption orders will have several effects. The first is the risk that they will trample over precisely the liberties our society needs to be most rigorously defending, scoring an own goal our society could do without. The second is that they will almost certainly end up restricting the speech of people not yet considered. Going on the Jacqui Smith precedent, what are the odds that the first time an Islamist is the target of some ‘disruption’ the pressure will grow for the authorities to ‘disrupt’ someone who has been rude about the subjects of the first disruption? To balance the books, as it were, and even the odds. Very swiftly we will see a great many people claiming every opinion that is contrary to theirs (or which upsets their own deeply held beliefs) must be subjected to the intervention of central government. I’m not saying that ‘disruptions’ will take place in every case. It is obvious that they could not because if they did then it would swiftly become the sole occupation of government. But it will become extremely tempting for the Home Secretary and others to use such devices in a manner which is not only politically ‘balanced’ but politically clever.
That significant quibble aside, this an important and thoughtful strategy – marred only by a perfectly remediable flaw.