Michael Gove’s new definition of extremism is as dangerous as it is divisive

When Michael Gove announced to parliament this week that the government has formulated a new definition of extremism, the announcement understandably sent shockwaves far and wide; not only did many of his own party’s MPs shift uneasily on the benches, but much of the country sensed a dangerously seismic shift in the nature of British democracy.

The new policy from the laboriously named Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations has been designed to tackle the rise in anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim abuse, but many groups have also expressed deep concerns that the strategy being proposed could have a very negative impact on free speech.

The timing of Mr Gove’s announcement wasn’t brilliant either – coming just days after the Tory party was engulfed in controversy over the remarks made by one of its most prominent donors, Frank Hester OBE. Hester, who is the party’s largest-ever donor, said that Britain’s longest-serving black MP Diane Abbott made him “want to hate all black women” and that she needed “to be shot”.

In the media storm that followed Hester apologised for making what he would only concede were “rude” comments about Ms Abbott, but insisted implausibly that his remarks “had nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin”.

Labour party chair Anneliese Dodds called the alleged comments “clearly, unequivocally racist and sexist”, but there was a lamentable hesitance from the government, who tried to close down the controversy by citing Mr Hester’s ‘apology’ and appealing to the country to “move on”. The increasing unease of Tory ministers eventually forced Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to intervene, and a statement was issued from Downing Street acknowledging that comments “allegedly made by Frank Hester were racist and wrong”.

“The prime minister is clear there is no place for racism in public life and as the first British-Asian prime minister leading one of the most ethnically diverse cabinets in our history, the UK is living proof of that fact,” the spokesperson said.

But the statement ended with a reiteration the Mr Hester’s remorse should be accepted after he “rightly apologised” for the offence caused.

All this seems a very long way from 1st March, when Mr Sunak strode out of 10 Downing Street to the awaiting podium that is normally used only when making profoundly important announcements. Most of us were expecting the date of the General Election but instead we got a rather tortured and mock-Churchillian ‘call to arms’ over the threat of extremism, and the urgent need to deal with it.

Sadly, instead of a balanced assessment this particular monologue was skewed towards the Tory party’s current preoccupation with extremism of the Islamic variety. The PM declared that we must “draw the line” when it comes to calls for “violent jihad” and he went on to propose that we must “prevent people entering this country whose aim is to undermine its values”. No mention was made at all of empathy, cohesion or integration, and Islamic extremism was conflated with the far-right extremism, which is a separate – and currently far more dangerous – problem altogether.

Of course blaming the stranger is a common fallback for governments who fail miserably to solve their country’s economic problems, whilst the combination of prejudice and poverty such failure creates serve only to intensify radicalism and reactionary forces.

Yesterday Michael Gove sought to put a little more substance on the the government’s latest proposals by naming specifically some of the groups that will be “re-assessed” against his new definition of extremism. The named groups will be denied access to funding and prevented from meeting ministers and officials or gaining a platform that could “legitimise” them through association with the government.

Mr Gove also explained that groups covered by new definition will have demonstrated conduct that falls short of criminality but is still deemed “unacceptable”. Once again the groups mentioned were variously Muslim or far right, misplacing both these disparate phenomena into the same ideological and threat territory. No mention was made of other potential threat categories, which potentially opens the door to applying this new definition to any form of counter-cultural, political or ideological group whose actions and behaviour might be entirely legal, but “unacceptable” by whatever paramaters the government decides.

In itself this is nothing new – during the 1970s and 80s we saw numerous questionable attempts to designate certain perfectly law-abiding protest and lobby groups as ‘unacceptable’, but what Mr Gove and the current government are moving towards is a redefinition of radicalism that shifts the argument from action, to ideas and ideology.

In short, it’s no longer what any organisation does that matters, it can be merely what they think or believe.

If that’s not the kind of country most of us would wish to live in, it’s sadly already too late – over the past few years we have seen numerous examples of a creeping authoritarianism and intolerance which actually isn’t coming from the street, but from the corridors of power. The recent exclusion zones around abortion clinics and the arrest and harassment of Christians paying peacefully and entirely legally nearby in public places illustrates this legislative shift quite graphically, as does the attrition of gender critical feminists who ought in a democracy to have every right to express their genuinely held views.

Mr Gove has emphasised that he wishes this new shift in policy will “ensure that government does not inadvertently provide a platform to those setting out to subvert democracy and deny other people’s fundamental rights”, which is a lot easier to say than it is to define, given the extreme and volatile subjectivity of the phraseology being used. Just the phrase “subvert democracy” is loaded with ambiguity, and could enable any government so inclined to define the most innocuous of counter-political ideologies to represent a potential ‘subversion of democracy’.

Elsewhere Mr Gove’s policy defines extremism as “the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance,” which of themselves are very different adjectives that really shouldn’t be seen together. We are assured that these shifts in the government’s attitude to free speech and the public domain “will not affect gender-critical campaigners, those with conservative religious beliefs, trans activists, environmental protest groups, or those exercising their proper right to free speech”.

One can’t help but feel that the very identification of the above groups in this context marks them out as entirely likely to fall foul of this new policy should the government feel so inclined. After all, is a demonstration calling for a ceasefire in Gaza a legitimate protest or a hate march? Is a protest outside the Houses of Parliament against the introduction of euthanasia an expression of a healthy democracy, or an example of intolerance?

Equally it could be argued on the other side of the fence that public condemnation of LGBT issues is exempt on the grounds that it is consistent with “conservative religious beliefs.”

The real problem with any new legislation of this sort that seeks to control the public zeitgeist is “who decides?” The UK already has numerous – perhaps far too many  laws in place to tackle unacceptable or dangerous behaviour, from the Public Order Act to counter terrorism legislation, so most of the bases are already covered when it comes to prosecuting people for extremism – and we certainly don’t need even more vague definitions and wooly descriptions.

The government of late may have become increasingly unhappy at the level of public unrest and reactionary politics being exercised in this country, but its disingenuous and highly dangerous to pin the blame for this on Islamic or far right groups. A far more honest and meaningful strategy would be for the government to take a brutally honest look at what it has failed miserably to do for the good of the country over the past 13 years, and to redress the issues of inequality, poverty and marginalisation that have been manifesting themselves in all this troublesome unrest – of whatever its complexion.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian