The Home Office once told this site that an Extremism Bill, contained in the list of measures announced in May when David Cameron was Prime Minister, was necessary if the likes of Anjem Choudary were to be charged and convicted – in other words, people who don’t themselves commit violent acts but incite other people to do so.
None the less, the odious Choudary is at last on his way to prison. There are claims this morning that his series of front organisations was connected to at least 15 terror plots: his organisation was certainly linked to the 7/7 murderers, Richard Reid (the shoe bomber) and the killer of Lee Rigby. Many who hear the news will feel both satisfaction, because Choudary is now behind bars, and bewilderment, because they will wonder what took the authorities so long. Certainly, there are questions to be answered about why he was allowed by the state to claim benefits and by social media effectively to use it to recruit. And as we wrote previously, “it is a damning condemnation of our culture that broadcasters effectively collaborate in building up his influence and reach by giving him publicity”.
We also suggested that there was a gap in the law which the likes of Choudary can exploit, but there are two main reasons for believing than an Extremism Bill may not be the solution to it. First, there is the simple fact that Choudary is at last in jail: so there may not be an insuperable problem after all. Second, there is no sign to date that the Government will come up with a workable definition of extremism. One PPS to a Minister suggested that anti-extremism legislation could be used against opponents of same-sex marriage, a view echoed in a standard letter from no less senior a Minister than the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. One definition, from the Government’s counter-extremism strategy, focuses on “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values”.
However, such values turn out to be not so much peculiar to Britain as universal to liberal democracies: equality before the law, rights for women and gay people, freedom of expression, and so on. The definition could be narrowed to make opposition to Parliamentary democracy the test. But where would that leave the Marxist academic who distrusts the Parliamentary road to socialism – such as Ed Miliband’s late father? Are fascists, believers in an Islamist state and communists to be criminalised simply for holding a view? The question is different though admittedly linked to whether or not Islamist hate preachers should be allowed on campus to incite hatred against gay people, Jews, non-Islamist Muslims (Sunni extremists rail against Shiites, as Shiite ones do against Sunnis) and so on.
Vice-Chancellors have a responsibility to safeguard the welfare of their students, just as social media does to prevent Islamist extremists running riot on, say, Twitter. Neither needs an offence of extremism, written into law, in order to act responsibly. Nor does government before taking down jihadi propaganda from the net.
Theresa May has acted deftly since her leadership campaign in junking policies that won’t work – such as quitting the ECHR, which she personally favoured but which, post-Brexit, risks raising support for Scottish nationalism further and is problematic in relation to Northern Ireland. Since a workable definition of extremism seems to be a contradiction in terms, the Choudary conviction should encourage her to drop that element of the proposed Bill, if not the whole measure.