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24 April 2024

Robin Simcox: “Extremism is not always a black-and-white issue”

The head of the Commission for Countering Extremism on why our categories for the threats we face are “not fit for purpose”.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Robin Simcox is the UK’s commissioner for countering extremism. But what does “extremism” mean? It is a “subjective word”, he said when we met near his office in Farringdon, central London. “It means different things to different people. It’s not always a black-and-white issue.”

We spoke not long after the government published its new definition of extremism on 14 March. It was widely received with derision, and criticised by three former Conservative home secretaries.

Developed under the Communities Secretary, Michael Gove, the new definition encapsulates “the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance” threatening people’s rights and freedoms or UK democracy – or that “intentionally create[s] a permissive environment for others” to achieve those ends. The previous definition, published in 2011 under the government’s controversial Prevent counter-terrorism strategy, included “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values”.

Simcox is head of the Commission for Countering Extremism, a government agency formed by the Home Office following the 2017 Manchester Arena attack in which 22 people were killed by an Islamist suicide bomber. He was appointed in 2021 by Priti Patel when she was home secretary, and confirmed in the job by her successor, Suella Braverman, a year later. The commission is independent, but Simcox spent more than a decade working at right-wing think tanks: the Heritage Foundation, the Henry Jackson Society and the Centre for Social Cohesion (the director of which was the hard-right commentator Douglas Murray). Is Simcox a political appointee? “I’d like to think I’m a subtler and more rounded thinker than I was 15 years ago, but my views have been pretty consistent and obviously not everyone’s going to agree with them,” he told me. “I think it’s important for us as a country to have those difficult conversations [about extremism], and I don’t regard them as political.”

While Simcox was consulted on the new definition, he was not satisfied by the project. “My view throughout was that it’s a really febrile atmosphere at the moment, and post-7 October [when Hamas attacked Israel and around 1,200 Israelis were killed, according to Israeli government figures], the extremism challenges this country faces have been amplified,” he said. “If the only response to that was a new definition of extremism, I think most people would view that as an unsatisfactory outcome. There has to be more to the work than just, ‘Well, we’re going to define it in a different way’… I do want there to be some follow-through to it; it can’t just be words.”

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Specifically, he is urging Britain to stop what he calls a “long-standing problem” of providing funds and patronage to extremists, whether that’s through visa approvals to fanatical clerics, broadcasting licences to television channels showing extremist content or charity grants to organisations hosting abusive material.

With his thick dark beard and beige checked jacket, Simcox is more like a dishevelled academic than embedded bureaucrat. Until the Israel-Hamas conflict began resonating in British society, he was lying low. “I thought it could be somewhat of a distraction if I had too big a public profile, but after the Hamas attacks it wasn’t really credible that I would have nothing to say on this in public.” His comments since then – London has become “a no-go zone for Jews every weekend”, Britain is a “permissive environment for anti-Semitism”, which is the result of a “three-decade long failed policy mix of mass migration and multiculturalism” – have made headlines.

Is he saying migration drives extremism in Britain? “No, I don’t think the two would be connected. We’ve created a pretty fantastic multi-ethnic democracy in this country, and I feel quite protective over it. We become a more divided and less tolerant country if we end up dividing ourselves into what I cast as parallel societies, dividing by race, ethnicity, class. That’s why I have an attachment to concepts like pluralism, the rule of law and free speech – a lot of those things I treasure I feel are threatened by extremists.”

Simcox sees the 7 October attacks as a watershed for extremism in Britain. The attacks and the war in Gaza are a “potentially profound radicalising moment in this country, similar to what happened on 9/11 or 7/7”. He does not think we can go back to how we were before 7 October. “I think it’s going to be generational. I find it hard to believe you can put the genie back in the bottle. It has that galvanising impact from a terrorism perspective, and my concern is over the impact it will have for UK security.”

Iran’s involvement is a vital concern. Simcox said that “from a domestic counter-extremism perspective, it would be helpful” for ministers to proscribe Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – something the Foreign Secretary David Cameron has ruled out. “To stop IRGC flags at protests and IRGC commanders in UK institutes would obviously send a political message to Iran… Is the IRGC fundamentally so different to the way Hamas or Hezbollah, which are proscribed as terrorist organisations, operate? I don’t think so. It’s in a somewhat unusual situation in that it’s also part of a state, but I think [proscription] would be a sensible step.”

Simcox calls “Islamist extremism” his “number-one concern”. He is focusing on claims of blasphemy undermining free speech, for example, the case of the schoolteacher in Batley, West Yorkshire, who was suspended in 2021 after showing pupils a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed in a religious education lesson. The teacher remains in hiding.

The “extreme right wing” is second in his in-tray, especially those groups “weaponising” mainstream issues such as grooming gangs, trans rights and Channel crossings. “The extreme right wing have really latched on to those things to say: ‘We’re the answer, guys.’ That’s strengthened my belief that responsible governments need to deal with the tricky issues.”

Simcox grew up near Skegness in Lincolnshire, England’s staunchest pro-Brexit county, where many migrant agricultural workers from eastern Europe settled in the Noughties. He described his childhood home town as “one of those areas where I see this problem, and some of the fault lines being exploited – immigration questions, the small boat stuff, for example. It’s a little disturbing to see.”

He is also analysing the operations of what he calls the “extreme left wing” – direct action groups such as “Just Stop Oil and various offshoots of Extinction Rebellion”. Why? “ “If you keep saying, ‘unless we act now, society’s doomed’ and ‘we’ve only got ten years to save it,’ what happens if, after seven years, that change hasn’t happened? People might consider doing something pretty drastic.”

Yet Robin Simcox finds traditional left-right divides are increasingly irrelevant to how extremism manifests in Britain. He said “incels” (“involuntarily celibate” men who spread misogynist hate online) can be “right-leaning or left-leaning” – and the “grab-bag” of conspiracy-based extreme views, including backlash to vaccinations, low-traffic neighbourhoods, 5G and 15-minute cities, “are not on right-left lines”.

“Going through my ‘extreme right’, ‘extreme left’ and ‘Islamism’ frame, I do have a sense of those categories breaking down a little bit,” he said. “Our categorisations for how to conceptualise this politically are probably not fit for purpose, because it is increasingly either apolitical or politics of every stripe… This grab-bag of anti-vaccination, Covid lockdown stuff, 15-minute cities, isn’t a tier-one issue, but it’s new, and it is incumbent and responsible of me to keep an eye out and see how it develops.”

[See also: Charles Duhigg interview: “We’ve forgotten the rules of communication”]

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger