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14 March 2024

Gove’s new definition of extremism is already a problem for Sunak

The new policy was designed to tackle the rise in anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim abuse – but it has been called a threat to free speech.

By Freddie Hayward

Anti-Semitic cases rose by 147 per cent from 2022 to 2023 and anti-Muslim cases have risen by 335 per cent since 7 October last year. That is what the government says prompted it to announce a new definition of extremism. It is worth quoting in full:

“Extremism is the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance, that aims to: 
– negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or
– undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or
– intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results in (1) or (2).”

The policy has been developed by the Communities Secretary Michael Gove – whose communitarianism often trumps his libertarianism – in order to prevent the government dealing with extremist groups by, for instance, giving them contracts or funding.

Many groups have come out to warn that the new definition represents a threat to freedom of speech. Jonathan Hall KC, who scrutinises the government’s state threat legislation, told the Guardian that the risk lies in how the definition “focuses on ideas, on ideology, not action”. The government will say it only affects those that deal with Whitehall. But Whitehall is an authority – it sets the tone and conveys legitimacy. It is not unthinkable that those who use labels to shut down opponents will add the new definition to their inventory.

In terms of politics, the government promising to clamp down on extremism in the same week that reports emerged of a Tory party donor calling for an MP to be shot is not ideal for No 10. The Prime Minister’s spokesperson would not say yesterday whether such comments undermined the UK’s liberal parliamentary democracy.

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The problem with this is twofold. The government’s attempted crackdown on the rise in anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim abuse could be a threat to free speech – an issue the Conservative Party claims to pride itself on. Secondly, whatever political benefit Rishi Sunak may have been given by the new definition has been diluted by a charge that the Tory party is struggling to shake: hypocrisy.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: How to fix a broken Whitehall]

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