March 6, 2024 - 7:30am

Rishi Sunak’s sudden anxiety about political violence, and the threat it poses to democracy, is understandable: a fortnight ago the Commons Speaker was pressured into ignoring parliamentary procedure to appease the mobs whose persuasive repertoire includes picketing MPs outside their homes and threatening to kill them. Something, surely, must be done.

So, on the evening of George Galloway’s by-election victory last Friday, Sunak delivered a sermon outside Number 10 — portentous yet heartfelt — in which, after describing the resurrection of the new Member for Rochdale as “beyond alarming”, he announced a plan to tackle the extremist menace by means of a robust new framework.

A significant part of this plan will include making sure that “no extremist organisations are being lent legitimacy by their interactions with Government.” Now, this problem was identified at least as long ago as 2011, when Lord Carlile, in his review of the Government’s anti-terrorism programme Prevent, noted that “in future, neither Prevent funding nor support will be given to organisations that hold extremist views or support terrorist related activity of any kind. This represents a strengthening of policy.”

But the consequent efforts, it turns out, were less than successful: in last year’s Review of Prevent, Sir William Shawcross “discovered that some CSOs [Prevent-funded civil society organisations] have promoted extremist narratives, including statements that appear sympathetic to the Taliban”. Sunak wasn’t wrong, then, when he observed in his speech that “this situation has gone on long enough.” But how, after 14 years of trying, will he now solve this seemingly intractable problem?

The plan — in fact in development since last year — seems to be for Michael Gove, the Communities Secretary, to rewrite the Government’s internal definition of “extremism”. Currently, it is defined as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values”. The new definition, it has been reported, will broaden this out to include “actions that undermine” British values.

Cynics will say that the reason public money has continued to be given to terrorist organisations over the entire period of Tory Government this century is something other than the interpretative gap between “vocal or active opposition to” and “actions that undermine”. And that, in any event, the reason those young women wore pictures of Hamas paragliders as they marched along Whitehall was something other than the Civil Service’s lax attitude to Prevent funding.

This planned definitional adjustment first drew fire from members of the Left, who objected to its intended use against them. More recently there has been concern from those on the Right, who fear its unintended use against them once Labour is in power. There is already a surfeit of ambiguous terminology, in policies and in the law, that the Left deploys to great effect against its opponents. And yes, Right-wingers use it too, when they can. But if I were Sunak, I wouldn’t at this point be looking to leave any more of it lying around.

Law is always downstream of politics — not just in the obvious sense of the creation of legislation, but in its interpretation and selective application. It’s hard, perhaps often impossible, to write statutes to improve culture. But nevertheless, there is something almost touching about Conservative MPs at this stage of their lifecycle, having so utterly failed over 14 years to legislate in a way that even slightly constricts the power of the hyper-progressive authoritarian Left, now fussing over the definition of extremism, in the hope of finally putting an end to all the nastiness. As a last-minute legacy of an outbound government, the Equality Act 2010 it ain’t.

And isn’t there something not merely ambiguous but profoundly sinister, nowadays, in that phrase, “undermining British values”? In Canada, the Government is currently trying to enact legislation to put people under house arrest who it is feared might in future commit a hate crime. If the next government in our country were to try something similar, it could well be centred around the notion of “undermining British values”. Let’s not give them ideas.

Adam King is a criminal barrister at QEB Hollis Whiteman.