Revealed: plan to brand anyone ‘undermining’ UK as extremist

Government officials have drawn up deeply controversial proposals to broaden the definition of extremism to include anyone who “undermines” the country’s institutions and its values, according to documents seen by the Observer.

The new definition, prepared by civil servants working for cabinet minister Michael Gove, is fiercely opposed by a cohort of officials who fear legitimate groups and individuals will be branded extremists.

The proposals have provoked a furious response from civil rights groups with some warning it risks “criminalising dissent”, and would significantly suppress freedom of expression.

One Whitehall official said: “The concern is that this is a crackdown on freedom of speech. The definition is too broad and will capture legitimate organisations and individuals.”

Gove’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities started a review of non-violent extremism in spring this year. A national cohesion and counter-extremism plan with the new definition is expected to be launched shortly.

Internal departmental documents marked “official – sensitive” say the proposed definition could “frame a new, unified response to extremism”.

It lists a number of organisations which it considers would be “captured” by the new definition.

Among them are the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), Palestine Action and Mend (Muslim Engagement and Development), which has featured at some Conservative party conference fringe events and in 2021 provided evidence to parliamentary committees.

The documents state: “Extremism is the promotion or advancement of any ideology which aims to overturn or undermine the UK’s system of parliamentary democracy, its institutions and values.”

Gove’s officials are understood to have been in talks with the Home Office and No 10 over the definition, which arrives during a particularly fraught period.

Last week the home secretary, Suella Braverman, described pro-Palestinian demonstrations in London as “hate marches”, prompting dismay from many participants who consider themselves peace campaigners.

On Saturday during the latest pro-Palestinian march, thousands assembled in London’s Trafalgar Square with 11 arrests made.

Civil rights groups said introducing a wider definition of extremism would threaten freedom of speech. There has been no public consultation on the new definition.

Akiko Hart, interim director at Liberty, said: “This proposed change would be a reckless and cynical move, threatening to significantly suppress freedom of expression.

“Expanding the definition so far beyond the current guidance risks further discouraging individuals and groups from legitimately exercising their right to free speech, while allowing the government to crack down on community groups, charities or faith groups they disagree with.”

Martin Bright, editor-at-large, Index on Censorship, added: “This is an unwarranted attack on freedom of expression and would potentially criminalise every student radical and revolutionary dissident. It has never been the British way to arrest people for thought crime.”

Ilyas Nagdee, Amnesty International UK’s racial justice director, said: “This definition must not be accepted or implemented.

“The definition of extremism and its usage in counter-terrorism policies like [counter-terrorism strategy] Prevent is already being applied so broadly it seeks to effectively hinder people from organising and mobilising. The proposed definition takes this even further and could criminalise any dissent.”

The government’s 2011 Prevent strategy defined extremism as the “active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”. Further attempts over the past decade to implement a new definition have been unsuccessful.

The government proposed a bill in the Queen’s speech in 2016 to “tackle the menace of extremism”, with a new civil order regime to restrict activity. The bill faced widespread opposition and was shelved after the government failed to provide a legally acceptable definition of extremism.

Under the proposed definition in the documents, extremism would be the promotion of any ideology which aims to “overturn or undermine the UK’s democracy, its institutions and values; or threaten the rights of individuals or create a permissive environment for radicalisation, hate crime and terrorism”.

It adds that the definition should be supported with public guidance that enables “consistent use and application”. The documents state that “stakeholders have thus far agreed this sets a clear threshold for identifying extremism”.

There is significant concern among some officials because they consider the broader definition could be used against legitimate organisations fiercely opposed to certain government institutions or calling for their abolition. They are concerned a wider range of individuals could be no-platformed or reported as suspected extremists in official files.

The proposed definition also includes: “Sustained support for, or continued uncritical association with organisations or individuals who are exhibiting extremist behaviours.”

It said the new definition moves from the 2011 definition of “active opposition” of British values to identifying extremism “through behaviours that enable the spread of extremist ideology”. This is a significantly broader definition, potentially capturing people who are considered to have failed to properly challenge what is seen as extremist behaviour.

Some officials are concerned the new definition could hamper the activities of legitimate political or environmental groups. It was reported in 2020 that at least 45 activists were referred to Prevent over environmental extremism between April 2016 and March 2019. At the time Amnesty International described the referrals as “deeply concerning”. MCB said the government “needs to challenge its own extremists who are intent on dividing our communities”. Palestine Action said: “This new definition is clearly an attempt to undermine and intimidate our movement. We refuse to be deterred.”

Mend has been contacted for comment.

A government spokesperson said: “We are clear there is no place for extremism, and over the last few years we have taken action to tackle hatred and those who seek to divide us.

“As you would expect, we keep our approach to tackling extremism under review to ensure it meets the evolving challenge it poses.”


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