Having been bored into a stupor by a supposedly Conservative government’s serial failure to be conservative, something Rishi Sunak said recently suddenly had a voice inside me crying, “Whoa!”. His party, which I once foolishly believed were committed to the intellectual tradition of limiting the state, now promises to redefine “extremism”. The aim, it seems, is to prevent people from engaging in any act that falls under parliament’s new definition. It will enable the police to arrest vast numbers of these alleged “extremists”, and the courts, if charges are proven and the bench so minded, to lock them up.

Our prime minister ostensibly did this because of the militancy of a small and nasty group within the larger mass of those legitimately protesting about events in Gaza. The militant group comprises mainly anarchists of a sort found at the uncivilised end of every otherwise civilised protest in memory: against the Vietnam War, the poll tax, or the second Iraq war. We know how genuine extremists operate: they spot a cause that attracts decent people – in this case stopping thousands of innocent civilians, notably children, dying in Gaza as the Israelis seek to eliminate Hamas’s terrorism – and latch on to it (and leech off it) parasitically. For them it is not really about “justice” for Palestinians, or Iraqis, or the Vietnamese, or even the poor old British working class who couldn’t afford the poll tax: it is about smashing parliamentary democracy and international capitalism, and especially the main agent of international capitalism, America. For these purposes, in the present disagreements the Israelis are portrayed as the puppets of the Americans (Hitler thought something similar, but let’s not go there).

Mr Sunak spoke in apparent anguish of the divisions exacerbated in Britain by naked acts of extremism. The pro-Palestinian marches were becoming too disruptive to be tolerated. They were exhausting the resources of an already inadequate police force. It had been widely reported that Jewish people have become afraid to venture into central London on a Saturday in case they find themselves vilified, threatened or attacked. This followed reports of children fearing to identify themselves as Jewish by wearing their faith school uniform in the street; and of Jewish businesses keeping a low profile during the current disturbances.

This is most distressing, and not just for those concerned: no decent person can be happy about a climate of intimidation being created, for Jews or anyone else. But a new definition of extremism is not only unnecessary, it would also be inadequate in stopping such acts. Worse, it would provide a vehicle for future governments who wish to restrict our freedom of speech even more than it is already. The laudable aim of preventing attacks on Jews (and, indeed, on Muslims) by trying to compel rational political discourse would enable the unlaudable aim of shutting down people with whom one simply disagrees.

A new definition of extremism is not only unnecessary, it would also be inadequate in stopping such acts

That is not an argument for allowing acts of intimidation. If Sadiq Khan’s increasingly pitiful police force in London chose to enforce the laws already on the statute book, no new definition of extremism would be necessary. The worst manifestations of political extremism are already identified as crimes and already carry penalties; all that remains is for the perpetrators to be identified, prosecuted and punished as severely as the law permits, pour encourager les autres.

I assume most reasonable people – whose number would obviously include both Messrs Sunak and Khan – would agree that an act of protest becomes extreme when it breaks a law intended to protect others. And there are all sorts of such laws out there waiting to be broken. At the mild end, let’s start with “breach of the peace”. Good old Wikipedia helpfully states that “in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, breach of the peace is descended from the Justices of the Peace Act 1361, which refers to riotous and barratous [barratry ceased to be an offence in 1967] behaviour that disturbs the peace of the King. More modern authority defines a breach of the peace as ‘when a person reasonably believes harm will be caused, or is likely to be caused, to a person or in his presence to his property, or a person is in fear of being harmed through an assault, affray, riot, unlawful assembly, or some other form of disturbance.’” That seems pretty comprehensive. Given it is not an imprisonable offence – the most that can happen is for the perpetrator to be bound over to keep the peace in future – it would deliver an appropriate warning slap on the wrist.

But if the bad behaviour gets nastier, and goes beyond a mere breach of the peace, then so do the existing sanctions. There is “threatening behaviour”, which Section 4 of the 1986 Public Order Act says can be prosecuted in a magistrates’ court if it is clear that (a) a person uses towards another person threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or (b) a person distributes or displays to another person any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening abusive or insulting. If either of these are done with the “intent to cause that person to believe that immediate unlawful violence will be used against him or another by any person, or to provoke the immediate use of unlawful violence by that person or another,” then the perpetrator can earn themselves six months in prison. Those provisions would seem to deal with much of the horrible behaviour by the tiny violent minority who go around frightening people simply because they are Muslims, Jews, or anything else for that matter.

In March a little twerp poured red paint over a picture of AJ Balfour in Trinity College, Cambridge, and slashed it with a knife, on the grounds that Balfour had drawn up the famous declaration in 1917 that promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine. He was also, according to the group behind the twerp, a “colonialist”, something rapidly overtaking “paedophile” as the worse kind of offender imaginable. Should someone be charged under the 1971 Criminal Damage Act as “a person who without lawful excuse destroys or damages any property belonging to another”, he or she could end up in the Crown Court, if the value of the damage is over £5,000. Since the portrait was a de László, and a recent one of those sold for £39,000, we are well within that ballpark. There is also a class of criminal damage covering heritage, and one covering racially and religiously motivated crime. The maximum sentence is ten years imprisonment, presumably enough to teach all alleged twerps a lesson.

Then, just short of physical assault, manslaughter or murder, if people get really out of control, there is “incitement”. It is one thing for someone to contend that the Israelis are behaving outrageously or even murderously in Gaza; it’s quite another to contend that their behaviour warrants Israelis, or their property, being attacked here. The former is free speech; the latter is encouraging an offence and is illegal under part 2 of the 2007 Serious Crime Act. Moreover, if someone incites people to kill and is convicted of doing so, the maximum sentence is ten years, even if the offence being encouraged is not committed.

There would therefore seem to be more than enough already on the statute book for politicians, the police and the CPS to work with, in dealing with what we would all consider extremism. Anything else becomes repression; and we might end up with a government that decides to pursue people simply for expressing views it has redefined as “extremist”. It might outlaw, for example, objections on religious grounds to same-sex marriage; or expressing support for capital punishment for monsters such as Wayne Couzens or Ian Huntley; or saying, “Enoch was right” about uncontrolled migration; or saying a man who thinks he’s a woman isn’t actually one. Free speech is the linchpin of our democracy: a wise government leaves it alone, and lets existing laws deal with those threatening by word or deed.

Simon Heffer is a historian, columnist for the Telegraph and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham

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April 2024, Columns, Pond Life

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