21 May 2015
One of the first announcements made by the new Conservative government was to reaffirm its pre-election manifesto commitment to introduce new counter-terrorism legislation, involving controversial Extremism Disruption Orders. Predictably Home Secretary Theresa May has received strong criticism from a wide cross-section of concerned MPs, civil liberties campaigners and Christians, as well as secularist organisations worried about dangers of the potential chilling of freedom of speech.
In a speech to the National Security Council last week the Prime Minister declared:
"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. It's often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that's helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance. This government will conclusively turn the page on this failed approach. As the party of one nation, we will govern as one nation and bring our country together. That means actively promoting certain values. Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Democracy. The rule of law. Equal rights regardless of race, gender or sexuality. We must say to our citizens: this is what defines us as a society."
This raises huge questions regarding how or indeed whether the state might enforce unity, impose so-called values and insist how people should be defined. Full details of the proposed legislation, understood to have been lobbied for by the UK's security watchdogs, have yet to be spelled out, but it is expected to provide the police with powers to seek from the high court to restrict what they may decide are 'harmful activities' by extremists. There would be a ban, for example, on 'extremist' broadcasting and publications, especially on the internet and social media, and any 'extremist' organisation that sought to promote hate speech in public or that attempted to 'undermine democracy' would be subject to banning orders. Of significant concern is the government's proposed definition of 'extremism', which is expansive and involves 'the vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values'. These include democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs and equality.
During cross-examination about the proposals by John Humphreys on BBC's Radio Four last week, Theresa May struggled to convince that the new powers would not also carry too great a risk of undermining basic civil liberties. When pressed she failed to clarify where and how lines might be drawn between the free expression of views that contradicted so-called 'British values' and 'extremism'. Humphreys concluded that the proposals were at best 'woolly' and cited the question of whether publicly articulating opposition to gay marriage would be considered 'extremist' and therefore subject to banning.
The Home Secretary reluctantly appeared to concede that such views would be valid and added:
"What we are talking about is the key values that underline our society and are being undermined by the extremists. Values like democracy, a belief in democracy, a belief in the rule of law, a belief in tolerance for other people, equality, an acceptance of other people's faiths and religions … One of the great things about living in the United Kingdom is that we all have a right to live our lives as we choose to live our lives. But we also have a responsibility to respect other people's right to live their lives as they choose to live … What we are seeing is people undermining what I would call those fundamental values of democracy and the rule of law and of tolerance of other people and doing that in a way which can lead people down the route of radicalisation and then obviously can lead them into violence and into taking action to try to undermine our society."
The British public will have much sympathy for Theresa May and the challenge she faces to tackle effectively the rapidly rising threat of home-grown Islamic extremism and terrorism without introducing a raft of unintended consequences that result in the trading of precious freedoms for security in a way that penalises us all. There is also a very serious question relating to whether such legislation, in which the State decides which values its citizens must not only support but also promote, is workable in practice and won't end up being counterproductive.
As Conservative MP David Davis observed: "Restricting free speech, and forcing those who hold views inimical to our own out of public debate and into the shadows, is an authoritarian act that will only serve to further alienate those who are susceptible to extremist views."
As details of the proposed legislation become clearer it will be necessary for government to work with the many and varied defenders of fundamental civil liberties to ensure that appropriate and practicable safeguards are built in to ensure that what appear to be very wide-ranging measures do not end up criminalising law-abiding people and destroying the fundamental British value of freedom in the name of enforcing 'British values'.