If ‘British values’ mean anything, they must prevent us from legislating against non-violent views that we find abhorrent.
The Government’s shift in focus to target extremism and tackle radicalisation rather than counter terrorism is a welcome move, but I question whether the measures set out by the Prime Minister will do this effectively, proportionately and in a way that befits our “British values”.
Among other things, the proposals are to include “extremism disruption orders”, which would not criminalise the act of hate speech or promotion of terrorism, for they are already illegal under the Terrorism Act 2006, but rather the intent to do so, if ministers reasonably believe this to be the case.
In essence, these measures target those who operate in what the police have called the “pre-criminal space” and therefore expand the definition of people who could be incarcerated from those who do bad things to those who think bad things. This is problematic for a number of reasons.
First, we have the ethical issue of clamping down on freedom of expression, one of our universally accepted human rights. The risk is that the measures are likely to be used in instances when contemplation never graduated to, nor was ever going to graduate to, action. Our courts will have to prosecute entirely on mens rea in the absence of actus reus, not only an ethically dangerous step towards criminalising thought, but also very difficult in practice to achieve a prosecution in our legal system. The inclusion of “reasonable belief” and a decision by “ministers” likely pre-empts this legal challenge, by having the Home Secretary make judgements rather than the traditional criminal justice system.
Secondly, we risk trying to legislate our way out of the extremist mess our country faces, when we should instead be investing in non-legislative measures to tackle the causes of extremism rather than its symptoms. We have all agreed that “a poisonous ideology” is the root cause and radicalisation is the biggest challenge, yet these measures tackle neither, only serving to disrupt its symptoms – hate preachers on campuses or extremist propaganda disseminators online, for example.
A third issue is that we must get beyond simply whacking whichever mole is perceived to be the current nature of the threat. Islamist extremism is like electricity, always seeking to take the path of least resistance. Rather than merely disrupting paths and wasting resources trying to catch up with extremists, we must cut this off at source, and do so without negatively altering the fabric of our nation. The fact that we cannot take water bottles onto planes now is a direct result of the foiled 2006 transatlantic aircraft plot. This will have disrupted future plots and may indeed have made us safer in the last decade, and has done so without clamping down on civil liberties, for carrying water on a plane is not a human right.
But the introduction of Terrorism Investigation and Prevention Measures (TPIMs), which curtail an individual’s freedom of movement and freedom of expression without being proven guilty at a fair and public hearing, is problematic because of the failure to uphold the three aforementioned human rights. The measures now being proposed will also fail to strike the correct balance between national security and civil liberties; between counter-terrorism and human rights. Our legislation must be valued and not tinkered with every six months to catch up with the extremist tactics du jour.
On top of all of this, it is plain to see that we don’t have the capacity within our security services and police force to monitor even more people and enforce an ever-widening set of laws. We increasingly see extremists on the fringes of groups carrying out terrorism-related offences, rather than those at the centre. The new measures might disrupt the communication between those at the centre and those on the fringe, but what we really must do is understand why people are attracted to such groups and their ideologies, and prevent people being vulnerable to radicalisation.
We need a broader, smarter and better financed counter-extremism strategy that engages communities and mobilises civil society to understand and comprehensively challenge the Islamist ideology and refute extremist narratives. The strategy must develop resilience in our institutions and among our young people so we can address their grievances though an alternative secular, democratic, liberal lens. It must also build capacity within our civil society by engaging the private sector and training front line workers, as this is not simply an issue for the state but for all of us. These things combined will truly tackle radicalisation.
In doing so, we must play by our own rules, and if “British values” mean anything, it is a commitment to protect equality before the law and freedom of expression. We must allow and challenge – rather than legislate against – non-violent views that we find abhorrent. If we get our long-term counter-extremism strategy right, we will have less need for more short-term legislation and counter-terrorism measures – this new government has a five year opportunity to get this right.
This article was originally published in the Telegraph blog and can be viewed here.