The Evangelical Alliance has been raising concerns around the “counter-extremism” agenda for a number of years.

We have argued that while the Government should vigorously pursue any who resort to violence or terrorism, the attempt to define non-violent beliefs as “extreme” risks criminalising peaceful and lawful opinion, threatening the legitimate diversity of thought we have in this country.


The last Queen’s Speech was the first for some time which did not mention new plans to tackle extremism. While the Government had hoped for some time that they would be able to pass new legislation on this,​“extremism” has remained controversial territory. 

For example, over the past few years we’ve seen proposals for counter-extremism legislation (e.g. on having Ofsted register and inspect out-of-school settings like Sunday schools), which has had to be abandoned for being vague and disproportionate. The Government has failed to make the case for new powers in this area, as opposed to using their existing anti-terror powers more effectively. 

It is possible that this difficulty doesn’t lie with practical policy, but with the concept of​“extremism” itself. Earlier this year, the new Commission for Countering Extremism published the outcome of its consultation on the subject. It found that three quarters of respondents found the Government’s definition of​“extremism” unhelpful or very unhelpful. This tallies with a survey of the public commissioned by the Evangelical Alliance and others, in which more than half of the public found extremism an unhelpful term in social or political debate, and in which people could not clearly agree on what counted as​“extreme”.

The Commission has now pledged to work on a new definition of​“hateful extremism”. But the responsibility to decide on whether to adopt such new definitions, and on whether​“extremism” is itself a helpful term, will lie with the next Government. It will be up to them to approach this issue in a new way, which both provides clarity around what is unlawful, and which protects diverse viewpoints. 

Fundamental British values

Connected to this is the debate around Fundamental British Values (democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and respect or tolerance), the heart of the current Government definition of extremism. The Evangelical Alliance did some surveys of evangelicals in the UK about these British values, and found:

  • 70% thought the Government was right in principle to define and promote British values.
  • 84% said that free speech needed greater protection in this context.
  • 70% disagreed that Government could be trusted to define British values

So while there’s agreement in principle on the need for these values, there’s not a lot of trust in the Government seeking to interpret them. 

In 2016 an influential committee of MPs and members of the House of Lords published a report on the Government’s proposals on extremism, including British values, which was less complimentary:

The Government gave us no impression of having a coherent or sufficiently precise definition of either​‘non-violent extremism’ or​‘British values’. There needs to be certainty in the law so that those who are asked to comply with and enforce the law know what behaviour is and is not lawful.”

The Committee went on to argue that such legislation risks affecting diverse religious groups who hold conservative views, while not advocating any form of violence. 

Again, it will be up to a new Government to review the area of​“British values”, as they are used in education and integration as well as counter-extremism. But the criticism suggests that we need a bolder vision of what unites us (diverse as we are), as current attempts are plagued by vagueness and a lack of trust. 

Free speech and protest

All this is occurring in the context of a wider debate around legitimate protest and its limits. From the contested questions around free speech at university, to concerns around expansive ideas of hate speech, to Public Space Protection Orders around abortion clinics, to MP’s standing down and citing systematic bullying, our current models don’t seem to equip us well for the strong and polarised opinions which we see in our society. 

Arguably many of our models date back to when we confidently assumed that the political mainstream largely agreed on fundamentals, with a few extremists on the margins. And so we had campaigns against extremism, assuming this view of a consensus against the extremes, only to have the political ground shift under our feet. Rather than the mainstream and the margins, increasingly everyone is an extremist to everyone else. 

It is into this new landscape that our new Parliament, new MPs, and potentially new Government, will be leading us. This will be both by their words and actions, as Parliament itself frequently sets the tone for wider debate in society.

Some questions to ask your candidates

  • How will you ensure that measures to tackle​“extremism” do not criminalise peaceful and lawful views in our society?
  • What do you think are​“fundamental British values?” What truly unites us as a country?
  • What steps will you take to ensure that those who hold non-violent but controversial or minority views have the freedom to be heard, and to express those views without fear?