Simon Calvert is Deputy Director for Public Affairs at The Christian Institute.
Later this year, the Government will introduce legislation it claims will tackle extremism “in all its forms” by introducing ‘Extremism Disruption Orders’ (EDOs).
A foolish boast as the Home Office has yet to define what extremism is. When you look at what ministers have so far said, their idea of extremism seems to include many minority, traditional or unpopular views.
These will likely include many campaign groups, mainstream religious leaders, and outspoken atheists.
The Government has decided that to tackle the scourge of extremism it will introduce a catch-all offence, and one which assumes guilt not innocence.
Those targeted by the State will not even have had to break a law. David Cameron announced that “saying to our citizens: ‘as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone’” is a “failed approach” that has to end.
A loyalist Tory MP told a constituent that teachers who teach that gay marriage is wrong must be subjected to the full force of the new law, in exactly the same way as violent extremists. The future for mild-mannered RE teachers in church schools looks grim.
Even environmental protestors, such as those in the North West and Sussex who are concerned about fracking, could be labelled extremists. Teachers are already being encouraged to spy on parents and pupils for this type of behaviour.
This approach smacks of panic. It’s neither intelligent nor measured. Worryingly, it embraces all the worst traits of so-called ‘governmental logic’: we have a problem, we need to do something, EDOs are something, so let’s do EDOs.
It was this daft logic that led to Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act, originally framed to target street yobs, being used to arrest street preachers, campaigning atheists, a student who called a police horse “gay”, and Peter Tatchell for protesting against an Islamist march.
But countless governments have fallen into this trap.
More chilling is where we find similar legislation. Not in France, Germany, the US, Canada, Australia or India, but in those two bastions of free speech and democracy, Egypt and Russia.
So inspirational are Mrs May’s proposals that in a recent BBC interview an Egyptian foreign minister defended a law used to imprison journalists by saying
“Egypt is facing terrorism and those who formulated this law have taken into consideration anti-terrorism laws in other countries, including your country.”
President Putin has enacted several anti-free speech measures aimed at clamping down on ‘extremists’. It’s just a coincidence that the extremists always seem to be from groups associated with the Russian opposition.
No one is denying that there is a problem with a small number of young men becoming radicalised and wanting to perpetrate acts of violence and terrorism against British citizens and our interests.
But we have dozens of laws already that enable us to tackle this, including:
- The Offences Against the Person Act 1861
- The Public Order Act 1986
- The Malicious Communications Act 1988
- The Protection from Harassment Act 1997
- The Terrorism Act 2000
- The Criminal Justice Act 2003
- The Communications Act 2003
- The Civil Contingencies Act 2004
- The Terrorism Act 2006
- The Serious Crime Act 2007
- The Counter-Terrorism Act 2008
- The Terrorist Asset Freezing etc. Act 2010
- The Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Act 2011
- The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014
- The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015.
This arsenal of legislation – some of which is already regarded as over-broad by civil liberty groups – can be used to target those engaged in terrorism and seize their assets, jail those inciting violence or using threatening behaviour, ban groups connected in any way to terrorism and even allow ministers to suspend existing laws during a time of crisis.
As former Attorney General Dominic Grieve said, the current laws constitute “a substantial armoury”.
Squashing the rights of dissenters, those who want peacefully to hold and express views, even those we might consider odd, old fashioned or challenging, is not the way to preserve our traditions and way of life.
And while there is clear political imperative to appear tough – to be seen to be doing something, anything – EDOs are not the solution to the radicalisation of a vile, hateful, but small number of people.
That takes focus, engagement, hard work and money, not a piece of legislation that criminalises thought, attacks free speech and savages our ancient rights.