Policy Exchange is undoubtedly right to argue, in a new report, that the Treason Act of 1531 is out of date – that’s to say, that its “antiquated and cumbrous” language means that any prosecution under its terms is unlikely to succeed. Whether an updated act would be useful is more controversial. None the less, two points about the think tank’s idea are surely indisputable.
First, it has assembled a coalition in favour of it which reaches deep into the establishment. Who is and isn’t a member of the latter is ferociously disputed. But any useful definition must surely include a former Lord Chief Justice (Lord Judge), a former head of MI5 (Lord Evans), a former head of counter-terror policing (Richard Walton) and a former Home Secretary (Amber Rudd). All have smiled on the report. So has Tom Tugendhat, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committe who, as we pointed out yesterday, alluded to the idea in the Commons.
The context was the row over two ISIS jihadis, Government Ministers, America, potential extradition and capital punishment.
This leads to the second point. Policy Exchange’s suggestion that a modernised treason law should be used to prosecute jihadis provides a rare example of public opinion and establishment views being aligned. We admit to having no polling evidence to prove the point, but hazard that many voters wouldn’t hesitate for a moment before backing treason trials in Britain for Islamist terrorists. They would wonder what all the fuss is about. (Though in the case of the ISIS fanatics in question we suspect that they would be happy with extradition to the United States.)
Which takes us to the appointment of Max Hill as the new Director of Public Prosecutions (for which moment Policy Exchange appears to have held back its report).
One of David Cameron’s achievements in office was to brook no nonsense about the connection between Islamist extremism and Islamist terror. His view, re-stated recently abroad and reported by this site, is that Islam is a great religion, but Islamism a dangerous ideology – a distorted version of one of the three great monotheistic faiths, though one with roots that reach back almost to Mohammed’s own time. Once in office, he called this spade a spade, and set about depriving Islamist groups of public money, Government patronage and shared platforms with Ministers.
This view now stretches across the political spectrum to form a consensus from the Tory right through the political centre to the old left – that’s to say, the bit of it that prioritises, say, womens’ rights above political correctness.
However, it may not yet have have reached Hill. He is on record as calling for some returning jihadis not to be prosecuted, criticising plans for prosecuting followers of online hate preachers, and suggesting shorter sentences for some terror offenders. In his former post as the reviewer of independent terror legislation, he also met with Cage, whose research director, Asim Qureshi, described Mohammed Emwazi, a.ka. Jihadi John, as a “beautiful young man.” He has also contested the description of jihadis as “Islamist”.
Now, not all of this is necessarily wrong. Prosecuting former jihadis who went to Syria, became disgusted with ISIS, and have turned anti-terror is not in the public interest. There must be safeguards in legislation against prosecuting people who stumble by accident into extremist preachers online. Prisoner rehabilitation should fit individual circumstances. And so on.
But if Hill really believes that “Islamist” is a term that should be swept under the carpet, he will be doing no-one any good – least of all the Muslim campaigners who recognise the problems that the ideology drives, and courageously contest it. The Anti-Extremism Commissioner, Sara Khan, is one of them. As for meeting with Cage, would Hill also have met, in his former post, with groups that have expressed sympathy for neo-nazi terrorists?
We understand that Jeremy Wright, as Attorney General, was on the verge of making the appointment, and that Geoffrey Cox, his replacement in the recent mini-shuffle, let the process continue. It is hard to believe that it would have been made when Nick Timothy, who saw the terror and extremism problem first-hand in the Home Office, was co-Chief of Staff in Downing Street.