Government proposals to broaden ‘extremism’ definition “the path to authoritarianism”

A government plan for a new definition of “extremism” has led to warnings it could inadvertently penalise Christian groups opposed to abortion, gender critical organisations that challenge transgender women’s access to same-sex facilities, as well as a range of other groups whose views constitute protected characteristics under the Equality Act.

A government plan for a new, much broader definition of “extremism” has led cabinet ministers to warn that it could inadvertently penalise Christian groups opposed to gay marriage and abortion, gender critical organisations that challenge transgender women’s access to same-sex facilities, as well as a range of other groups whose views constitute protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010.

The proposed definition forms part of wider proposals currently under consideration by Communities Secretary Michael Gove, who is concerned that the current definition of extremism is too narrow and allows Islamist and far Right groups to “get away” with behaviour that stirs racial and religious hatred, threatens communities and divides society.

According to the Telegraph, Mr Gove originally wanted the new definition to be statutory, but was warned that making it legally enforceable could capture political organisations such as the Scottish National Party. As a non-statutory definition, it will still ban anyone in Whitehall, government bodies or quangos from engaging with or funding groups of individuals that are judged to be promoting extremist ideology that “undermines” or “overturns” British values.

The existing, non-statutory definition of extremism, which underpins the government’s Prevent counter-extremism programme and has been in place since 2011, states that extremism is:

Vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.

Although details of the new definition are not expected to be released until next week, briefings given to the media by unnamed “government sources”, suggest it will be similar to a definition prepared by civil servants working for Mr Gove, and first revealed by the Observer back in November. Under that proposal, the existing definition was effectively recapitulated before an additional, much broader clause was added. Extremism thus became: 

[T]he promotion or advancement of any ideology which aims to overturn or undermine the UK’s system of parliamentary democracy, its institutions and values; or threaten the rights of individuals or create a permissive environment for radicalisation, hate crime and terrorism.

Senior government figures who have seen the current definition have warned it will “provoke tensions” with gender critical organisations challenging transgender women’s access to same-sex facilities and a range of other groups such as student radicals, lockdown sceptics, and religious groups who campaign against issues such as abortion or gay marriage.

“It’s going to be incredibly difficult,” a government source told the Times. “You can see how, very quickly, small ‘c’ conservative groups will be hit with this.”

Civil servants have expressed concerns that this broader definition could also be “used against legitimate organisations fiercely opposed to certain government institutions or calling for their abolition”.

Writing on X, Miriam Cates MP described the definition as “the path to authoritarianism”.

“What does it even mean to ‘undermine British values’ when there is no consensus – and certainly no legal definition – of what those values are?”, she asked, before adding: “In a free and democratic society with a plurality of opinions and beliefs, it is foolish and dangerous to separate ‘extremism’ from violence and terrorism.”

Is it also a sledgehammer to crack a nut? Speaking to the Telegraph last November, Lord Carlile, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, said the police were making insufficient use of existing laws that are perfectly capable of tackling extremists. The 1986 Public Order Act, for instance, already contains provisions designed to outlaw the stirring up of racial hatred by extremist groups.

Mr Gove has indicated that the draft definition, which will need to be signed off by the cabinet later this week, will be accompanied by a new government unit for combating extremism that will assess whether individuals or groups have breached the new definition.

According to “government sources” this will add an extra protection to prevent groups inadvertently falling foul of the provisions. But might it just as easily go the other way, with groups expressing lawful but dissenting, sceptical, unfashionable, or ideologically inconvenient views ending up at risk of receiving less protection depending on the political whims of the government of the day?

After all, the government’s shadowy Counter Disinformation Unit was initially set up with the aim of combatting foreign interference in European elections, but was quickly repurposed during the Covid lockdowns in order to monitor social media posts by members of the British public – including academics, MPs and journalists – for possible ‘misinformation’, and flag content considered problematic to social media companies for censorship.

Then there’s the FSU’s case files, which offer multiple cautionary tales of ordinary members of the public being branded extremist for their entirely reasonable, perfectly lawful opposition to elements of mainstream orthodoxy.

For instance, we once went to bat for Kellie-Jay Keen after her petition on Change.org asking the Oxford English Dictionary to retain its definition of a woman as an “adult human female” was removed on the grounds that defining a woman in that way is ‘hate speech’.

As that anecdote demonstrates, the concept of ‘hate speech’ is incredibly nebulous and ill-defined, and, as a result, susceptible to subjective, highly partisan interpretation.

Should we really trust politicians – and a government monitoring ‘unit’ – to determine what is and what isn’t ‘hate speech’ – or ‘extremist’, or ‘undermining of British values’ – without weaponising it to advance their own political agenda?