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  2. UK Politics
5 March 2024

Sunak’s latest rebrand will fail for the same reason all the others have

The Prime Minister wants to turn himself into a defender of British values against extremism – but there is already dissent in Tory ranks.

By Freddie Hayward

George Galloway made a stark warning on his first day in parliament: the next general election “will be about Muslims [and] the taking away of civil liberties”. His presence has triggered a fresh narrative from Rishi Sunak: that the government must do more to tackle extremism.

Define “British values”. Try to be more specific than “a sense of fair play”. It’s quite hard, isn’t it? Now try to create a legally watertight definition, one you would trust the state to use when deciding whether or not you are an “extremist”. 

Here is the government’s attempt. It defines extremism as: “Vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”

But the government wants to toughen this up. Rishi Sunak has tasked Michael Gove with tightening this definition, which would be used to exclude individuals from state funding and engagement. According to the Times, the new definition could include promoting an ideology that undermines the “rights or freedoms of others” or the UK’s liberal system of democracy and democratic rights.

Critics of Tony Blair’s constitutional reforms beware. The same goes for House of Lords abolitionists. I’m being facetious, surely? But what if the constitutional sceptics in our midst call MPs – as guardians of the current system – illegitimate? What if an SNP MP sent a combative tweet calling for the “British liberal system” to be replaced with a newly independent Scottish state?

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Another problem for the government is that rights often compete with one another. The right to get to the hospital when you are injured can conflict with the right of Just Stop Oil to protest. The right of trans women to be treated as women can conflict with the right of biological women to non-male spaces. The wealthy’s right to private property is undermined through redistributive tax policy. Political action – or even calling for political action – can sometimes necessarily involve undermining the rights of others.

Silly? Hyperbolic? Whatever your thoughts, these are the types of concerns being raised in the Conservative Party. Miriam Cates MP said yesterday: “What does it even mean to ‘undermine British values’ when there is no consensus – and certainly no legal definition – of what those values are?”

This gets to the heart of the political risk for Rishi Sunak. The new definition is being framed as the meat behind the Prime Minister’s speech on Friday about the growing threat of extremism. This seems to be yet another political strategy from Sunak: frame the Conservatives as the protector of British values to force Labour into a tricky position over free speech surrounding Gaza.

Will it work? As ever, he is facing opposition from within the party – something that will distract from any misstep from Labour. This is only the latest attempt to shift the narrative beyond the economy. Take small boats, defending motorists against 20mph speed limits, or railing against a hypothetical meat tax. The problem, though, is that the political fundamentals – that people are angry with public services, that they feel worse off than four years ago, and that they hold the Conservatives partly responsible – have not changed.

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

[See also: The Budget won’t save the Tories]

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