This years’ Queen’s Speech included the announcement of a Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill. Last years’ Speech contained the announcement of an Extremism Bill. The differences between the two are slight, meaning this year’s iteration is largely a rebranding of the Government’s unfulfilled vision. But when ideas fail, as Goethe put it, words come in very handy. Closely compare the summary documents accompanying the two speeches, and the vital difference becomes clear: the Government has lost confidence in its approach, but not changed it.
In 2015, the Government stood firmly behind its exciting new idea of broadening its counter-extremism efforts. No longer would the Government merely criminalise incitement to violence and supporting terrorism. Instead, it would work to ‘combat groups and individuals who reject our values and promote messages of hate.’ After a barrage of withering criticism to its Extremism Bill, the Government isn’t so explicit about the breadth of purpose and ambition behind its counter-terror centre-piece. Now, the bill now merely provides ‘stronger powers to disrupt extremists and protect the public’.
No longer is the effort so distinctly concerned with the expression of unfavourable opinion. The Government now seeks to ‘tackle extremism in all its forms, so our values and our way of life are properly promoted and defended.’ Through this vague language, the uncomfortable reality of what it means to ban extreme opinion is obfuscated. And the Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs) that so upset civil liberties activists? Now they are a ‘civil order regime’ (note the lack of capitalisation), and they will be introduced, naturally, only following ‘consultation’.
So much for the pitch. What of the substance?
The Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill would not just seek to replicate the Extremism Disruption Orders of its forebear. It would also replicate the Extremism Bill’s effort to strengthen Ofcom’s role in the removal of extremist content (now specifically framed as the power to regulate internet-streamed material from outside the EU). Like the previously proposed Extremism Bill, it will contain new powers to allow the closing down of premises used to support extremism, though this is described in the more specific context of radicalisation in unregulated education settings, potentially a welcome specification seeking to tackle an important problem.
Like the previous Bill, it will seek to criminalise the expression of certain opinions, to build on the illiberal legacy of the ASBO to combat extremism, to censor and restrict media content to protect our citizenry, and to conflate the issues of integration and counter-extremism. Where it differs is on the margins – with new powers for Government to intervene where councils fail to tackle extremism for example. Many of the criticisms of this new bill, therefore, are the same that can be made regarding the Extremism Bill: the powers it proposes are illiberal, poorly focused, and risk alienating British Muslims further from the state.
In seeking to more broadly tackle ‘extremism’ rather than ‘violent extremism’, the Government risks setting itself an impossible task. First, efforts to define ‘extreme views’, and differentiate them from what would then be ‘legal views’, come with so many philosophical pitfalls that legislation based on such a distinction is doomed to fail. Second, the relationship between extremism and violence is far from clear, and the evidence that one leads to the other is simply not strong enough to justify such a radical curtailment of liberal democracy.
Through the pursuit of this new ‘civil order regime’, which, given the scope of the previously floated EDOs, could do anything from stopping someone speaking on social media to restricting who they can associate with, the Government risks creating new barriers with the communities whose engagement is critical to the success of its cornerstone Prevent strategy.
In seeking to censor content or shut down conversations, the Government again makes the mistake of thinking that banning things makes them disappear. It has never been more difficult to censor content, particularly online. Efforts to prevent access to beheading videos, or take down ISIS social media channels, or remove White Nationalist memes consistently fail. Young people inevitably will be exposed to extremist propaganda. The future of safeguarding against extremism lies in education. The focus should be on teaching young people how to recognise extremist propaganda, understand when they are being manipulated, and identify poor arguments in order to build their resilience to the material they will inevitably be exposed to.
The proposed Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill is worrying because it is the Extremism Bill with a facelift, and that Bill was in turn built on a bedrock of bad ideas.
The Government is focusing on shutting down access to extremist material, on shutting up extremist speakers, and shutting out extremist groups. A more productive approach, and one more fitting for a liberal democratic society, would be to focus on winning the argument against extremism, and teaching young people to do the same.