Michael Gove announces new definition of “extremism” amid free speech concerns

Communities Secretary Michael Gove has set out a new, “updated” and “more precise” definition of non-violent extremism, which government officials will use to 'name and shame' Islamist and far-Right groups that are banned from government funding.

Communities Secretary Michael Gove has set out a new, “updated” and “more precise” definition of extremism, which government officials will use to identify and publish a list of Islamist and far-Right groups that will. be banned from participating in public life, although won’t have their civil liberties curtailed, reports the Mail.

The proposed definition forms part of a wider counter-extremism strategy currently under consideration by Mr Gove, who is concerned that the current definition of extremism is too woolly and allows extremist groups to “get away” with behaviour that stirs racial and religious hatred, threatens communities and divides society.

Earlier this month, Rishi Sunak warned that extremist groups in the UK are “trying to tear us apart”, and condemned what he called “a shocking increase in extremist disruption and criminality” following the October 7th massacre by Hamas and Israel’s subsequent military response.

Ministers believe that using the new definition to identify groups as extremist will ensure they are not inadvertently providing a platform, funding or legitimacy to groups or individuals who are attempting to “negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others” or “overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights” or “create a permissive environment for others” to do either of the above.

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

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.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Thursday, Mr Gove named three Muslim-led organisations and two far-right groups that could fall foul of the new definition.

The British National Socialist Movement and Patriotic Alternative were described as promoting neo-Nazi ideology, while the Muslim Association of Britain, CAGE, and MEND were cited as organisations that had “Islamist orientation and beliefs”. (The FSU has written about MEND’s role in the recent cancellation of Lord Austin here.)

As a non-statutory definition, it will ban anyone in Whitehall, government bodies or quangos from engaging with or funding groups of individuals that are judged to be extremist. The intention is for it also to replace the 2011 definition in Prevent and, in due course, will therefore affect those parts of the state within scope of Prevent – local authorities, the NHS, the police, prisons, schools and universities.

Groups meeting the new definition – even if they are non-violent – will be banned from receiving taxpayers’ money and from contact with ministers or senior civil servants. It will also apply to the honours system and public appointments.

According to a Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities press release, the definition will be used by government departments and officials alongside a new set of “engagement principles”, which are designed “to help officials to engage more widely whilst mitigating the risk of undertaking engagement that undermines government’s core aims to maintain public confidence in government; uphold democratic values; and protect the rights and freedoms of others”.

UK Ministerial departments will be expected to consider the new principles when deciding whether to move forward with engagement with groups that meet the new definition. 

Mr Gove told Sky News: “It’s not intended to prevent people demonstrating per se, absolutely not.

“It’s not a restraint on free speech. It applies only to engagement with government, because we know that there’ve been cases in the past where individual extremist organisations have sought to take advantage of government patronage, money and influence in order to advance their agenda.”

“So today’s definition applies only to government and makes it clear that we will keep these organisations at arm’s length so they can’t benefit from access to government and its funds,” he added.

The Communities Secretary stressed that decisions about which groups are extremist, and can therefore be excluded from participating in public life in the sense set out, will in the first instance be made by “independent” civil servants working within the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Mr Gove added that some of the country’s foremost counter-extremism experts will also be recruited to work in a new counter-extremism unit that sits within DLUHC and will identify groups or individuals that meet the new definition of extremism.

According to the Times, this new ‘centre of excellence’ will add an extra protection to reduce the risk of 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  on the extremist list, according to the political whims of the government of the day?

After all, the government’s 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 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 with a view to getting it removed.

FSU General Secretary Toby Young regards this as a definite risk. Writing for the Spectator, he warned that the new definition could potentially be applied to “gender critical feminists, anti-abortion activists and other betes noires of metropolitan radicals”. As such, it could hand a “dangerous weapon” to a Labour government, which could tweak it, or deliberately misinterpret it, to “smear their political opponents”, he said.

Speaking anonymously to the Mail, one Whitehall source agreed: “If the wrong government gets in they could potentially extend it into areas which people would not want to see, that is the risk,” they said.

That’s all the more concerning given that, as former home office minister Kit Malthouse pointed out in the Commons on Thursday, under the government’s proposals there is no right for a group to appeal their inclusion on the list, although they could judicially review the decision if they have the funds.

Speaking to the Guardian, the government’s independent review of terrorism legislation, Jonathan Hall KC described this as the labelling of people as extremists by “ministerial decree”.

“The definition focuses on ideas, on ideology, not action,” he said. “So it’s a move from the previous definition … Moving the focus from action to ideology or ideas is an important one because I think people will be entitled to say: ‘What business is it of the government what people think, unless they do something with that?’”