The UK government is reportedly considering adopting a new definition of “extremism” that has raised concerns among activists and officials alike. According to internal government documents obtained by The Guardian, the proposed definition includes anyone who “undermines” British institutions or values. The definition states that extremism is the promotion or advancement of any ideology aimed at overturning or undermining the UK’s system of parliamentary democracy, its institutions, and values.
The new definition, which is part of a national counterextremism plan announced by cabinet minister Michael Gove’s Department for Leveling Up, Housing, and Communities, is intended to frame a new unified response to extremism. However, activists and officials have expressed worries about the lack of public debate or consultation regarding this definition and its potential impact on freedom of speech and dissent.
Index on Censorship editor Martin Bright has criticized the move, calling it “an unwarranted attack on freedom of expression.” He argues that it could potentially criminalize every student radical and revolutionary dissident, adding that it has never been the British way to arrest people for thought crimes. Even government officials have expressed concerns that the definition is too broad and could inadvertently capture legitimate organizations and individuals.
Amnesty International UK racial justice director Ilyas Nagdee points out that a similar definition of extremism is already in use under the government’s counterterrorism project Prevent, and it has proven to be a hindrance to organizing. Prevent defines 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.
In the past, there have been attempts to broaden the definition of extremism, but they were scrapped as not legally acceptable due to the various definitions held by different agencies. However, Gove’s new scheme addresses this issue by providing a sweeping and comprehensive definition.
According to The Guardian, organizations such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), Palestine Action, and Mend (Muslim Engagement and Development) would be captured under this new definition. Critics argue that such a definition could be used to undermine and intimidate movements and communities. Palestine Action has denounced the proposal, stating that they refuse to be deterred. MCB has urged the government to challenge its own extremists who are intent on dividing communities.
The concerns over the proposed definition of extremism come in the wake of recent events surrounding protests in support of Palestine. Home Secretary Suella Braverman has referred to these demonstrations as “hate marches” and called for the police to re-examine whether waving Palestinian flags or chanting slogans could constitute hate crimes. In a recent incident, two women were charged under the Terrorism Act for carrying signs depicting paragliders, similar to those used by Hamas to enter Israel.
The adoption of this new definition of extremism has raised significant concerns about the potential impact on freedom of speech and the criminalization of dissent. As the government moves forward with its national counterextremism plan, activists, officials, and the public are calling for greater transparency and public debate to ensure that the definition effectively targets genuine threats while safeguarding fundamental rights and liberties.