Theresa May 14-04-15

Will a new legal measure brought in to curb Islamist fanatics be deployed against teachers in Church schools or Marxist professors in Universities?

Both the Christian Institute and the National Secular Society believe that it may be, and this combination is so unusual as to make the rest of us sit up and take notice.  The device in question is the proposed Extremism Disruption Order – EDOs, in short.  These are to be introduced in the Government’s Extremism Bill and, according to Theresa May, will be aimed at Islamist extremists who “reject our values”.  EDOs will be deployed by the police once they have permission to do from a court.

They should be viewed in a wider context.  The political parties, the civil service, the security services, the police themselves – all have been divided since at least 7/7 by the question of whether government policy should target only violent extremists, such as ISIS terrorists, or non-violent extremists too, such as, say, Anjem Choudary, who is currently being prosecuted for inviting support for ISIS?

David Cameron has been absolutely right to take the consistent view, both in opposition and government, that Islamist ideology is the poisoned soil from which Islamist violence grows – and that the latter must therefore be targeted as well as the former.  ConservativeHome believes that there are three main means of doing so.  First, government itself must not patronise or share platforms with or promote extremist groups – and get on with barring extremist preachers and websites.  Second, it must ensure that other institutions face up to their responsibilities: for example, it is right that Vice-Chancellors should be chivvied into treating Islamist extremists on campus in the same way that they would treat fascist extremists.  Finally, extremism policy must complement integration policy more broadly.

So far, so good – but, as we said in March, “there is a balance to be struck between measures that could perhaps provide greater security against terrorists, but would certainly compromise the civil liberties of everyone else”.  We cited the example of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which was introduced to consolidate surveillance laws…but ended up being used by local authorities to probe fairground rides, puppy sales, investigative journalists, parents suspected of cheating on school catchment area rules and people believed to flouting bin rules.

When it comes to EDOs, much will depend on the form of words in the Bill.  The Government had a working definition of extremism in the last Parliament: “the vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”, according to the Home Secretary.  At first glance, this formulation looks closely-drawn enough to catch Islamist extremists – but not, say, the teacher in the Church school who feels duty-bound to tell his or her pupils that the church’s view is that marriage can only take place between a man and a woman.  But what about the dotty Marxist professor who believes that the Parliamentary road to socialism is doomed.  If EDOs had been in place post-war, might one have been deployed against, say, Ralph Miliband?

If this prospect sounds far-fetched, mull what might happen if the definition is drawn more widely – and even as written it does, after all, contain the broadening word “including”. According to a letter from no less senior a Government Minister than the Chancellor of the Exchequer, EDOs will cover “activities that spread, incite, promote or justify hatred against a person or group of persons on the grounds of that person’s or group of persons’ disability, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and/or transgender identity”

And as Paul Nizinskyj suggested on this site on Saturday, hate speech is something of a moveable feast.  He illustrated this by citing a letter from Mark Spencer – who as PPS to Elizabeth Truss, the Environment Secretary, is himself a member of the Government.  Spencer wrote to a constituent that EDOs would in some circumstances “apply to a situation where a teacher was specifically teaching that gay marriage is wrong”.  He has also written that “racists, religious fundamentalists and homophobes” should not have “the freedom to spread their message of hate through what are often vulnerable communities”.  But is the UKIP member who seeks to adopt a child in Rotherham a racist?  Is the Catholic teacher who tells her pupils the church’s view of marriage a homophobe? Is the Sunni or Shi’ite who believes that Mohammed flew to heaven on a horse a religious fundamentalist?

If so then, given such a view, the state could end up serving EDOs on the almost the entire Muslim population of Britain.  The Home Office will protest that this is a fanciful reading (not to mention a misrepresentation) of its intentions, which leads directly to the main point.  Intentions are one thing.  But words are another.  And an Act of Parliament is made of words.

MPs and Peers should therefore look very critically at EDOs when the Bill eventually arrives.  There is little doubt that they will – although a Corbyn win in Labour’s leadership contest will, if it happens, do nothing for the ability of the Official Opposition to hold the Government to account.  Labour MPs will be too busy fighting each other to probe Government bills closely.

Now there’s a thought.  If the beard from Islington is indeed its next leader, might some enterprising Chief Constable serve an Extremism Disruption Order on the Labour Party?  Mind you, in such a circumstance it will be disrupted enough already.  But perhaps, given the obscurity of the Government’s intentions, the opacity of EDOs and the over-reaching habits of the police, it’s unwise to float the idea, however light-heartedly…

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