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For the Sake of Democracy?

Parliament spring
By Harry Brown
14 March 2024
Public Affairs

The Levelling up Secretary Michael Gove today unveiled the long-trailed updated definition of extremism. The announcement comes following the October 7 attack on Israel and subsequent war in Gaza, which has led to a 147% rise in antisemitic incidents and a 335% increase in anti-Muslim hate cases. 

The new definition describes extremism as "the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance" that aims to "negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others" or "undermine, overturn or replace the UK's system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights". It also includes those who "intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve" either of those aims. This differs from the previous 2011 definition, which described extremism as "vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and belief" as well as "calls for the death of members of our armed forces".

The announcement comes at a time when emotions are running high in Westminster after news broke that a donor who has given over £10m to the Conservative Party had himself made comments about former Labour MP Diane Abbott, which the Prime Minister called “wrong” and “racist” at PMQs this week.  

The announcement has drawn criticism from across the political divide. Labour’s Shadow Communities Secretary Angela Rayner said that “tinkering with the definition is not enough.” The Liberal Democrats’ Alistair Carmichael said the new definition was “at best vague and at worst risks sowing even more division,” and leader of the SNP in Westminster, Stephen Flynn, said, “It was bloody dangerous.” 

For his part, Gove stressed that British democracy is a “success story that is multi-national, multi-ethnic and multi-faith” and that the UK was “stronger because of our diversity.” However, in line with the Prime Minister’s intervention from the steps of Downing Street just a fortnight ago, Gove warned that British values are “under challenge” from extremist groups that are “driving polarisation” between communities. 

In the Commons, Gove revealed some of the groups on the government’s watch list for cause for concern, including the far-right groups the British National Socialist Movement and Patriotic Alternative, as well as Islamist groups The Friends of Al Aqsa, the British affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Muslim Association of Britain.  

So, what will this mean in practice? Firstly, it is important to note that the new definition will not be placed on statutory footing and falls short of criminality. Gove himself was keen to underline on his morning media round that the updated definition would not impact the current Gaza protests. Instead, groups that are added to the list will be banned from engaging with the government, exerting influence on policy and denied government funding.

However, some Conservative MPs on the right have questioned the steps and processes announced today. Miriam Cates MP of the New Conservatives grouping, said broadening the definition of extremism could have a “chilling effect on free speech.” 

There are others who question the precedent the government is setting and are worried that groups they endorse would be excluded from engaging with the government.

Where the government goes next with this is yet to be seen, but we can be sure that we will be hearing more about issues of extremism in the build-up to the election. 

The Chancellor delivered his budget only a week ago, and instead of campaigning around the policies announced within that, the government has decided to put the extremism debate back at the forefront of politics. In perhaps the clearest sign yet, this may be one of the major battlegrounds as we head towards a general election.