definition of extremism michael gove uk

It’s political: no ‘new definition of extremism’

The current media flurry around a ‘new definition of extremism’ is misplaced; there is not, in fact, a new definition, but the political manifestation of a recommendation about the implementation of Prevent by Shawcross in his report.

Shawcross – and Sunak – argue that terrorism should be understood as being driven by ideology, and a direct road of travel between ‘extremist’ ideas and violence.

This is so despite an absence of research that confirms it. Even research recently commissioned by the Commission for Countering Extremism fails to do so.

Nonetheless, Prevent addresses ideas – ideologies – which, in themselves, are lawful. The government takes to itself the definition of what is to be judged ‘extremist’. This is a form of state-directed censorship which is necessarily authoritarian.

The definition of extremism is ‘active opposition to fundamental British values’ of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance.

However, mutual respect and tolerance necessarily involve acceptance of contrary arguments, even when they are regarded as offensive, and commitment to their free expression where lawful.

Straight from the Shawcross Review

Significantly the Independent Review of Prevent under William Shawcross (published in February 2023) crossed the very line it sought to define.

This is evident in his claim that critics of Prevent include “some civil liberties groups and activists who seemingly, as a matter of principle, oppose a state-run scheme to counter specific ideas, attitudes, and non-criminal behaviours, no matter how light touch the scheme’s methods” (para 6.250)

The current media flurry around a ‘new definition of extremism’ is misplaced; there is not, in fact, a new definition, but a recommendation about the implementation of Prevent proposed by Shawcross.

Thus, he wrote, “I understand the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) is considering work on how it engages across communities, which is welcome. I am told this work will include guiding principles for engagement. I would encourage the government to consider whether those who spread disinformation about Prevent, and those who discourage others from making referrals to Prevent, should be considered appropriate partners for Prevent. I do not believe they are.” (para 6.217)

The ‘extremist list’ and centralised control of Prevent

The first most troubling recommendation that was taken up by the Home Office is that of the ‘Muslim civil society register’, which provides the impetus for Sunak’s ‘extremist list’.

Public authorities are to be prevented from engaging with lawful civil society organisations – many of them performing an essential voice for legal dissent and challenge to the government.

Shawcross also recommended the central coordination of Prevent within a new unit within the Home Office. This direction would be provided across government departments and over local authorities in England.

This new unit has been created by abolishing the charter for the Commission for Countering Extremism, which took place early last year (under the old charter it had no responsibility for Prevent).

The responsibility for Prevent now lies with an unelected and unaccountable official, effectively a consultant, to the Home Office: the current Commissioner for Countering Extremism, Robin Simcox.

He is no longer an independent adviser – as much of the media continues to call him – or a ‘czar’ for counter-extremism, but its political commissar.

Simcox is not a liberal, but a neo-conservative ideologist now operating at the centre of Sunak’s government.

Under these developments, two questions must be posed: What about these new proposals is ‘light touch’, Mr Shawcross? Weren’t liberals and conservatives alike once previously opposed to such unaccountable ‘state-run schemes’?