February 24, 2021 - 5:49pm

Extremists are gaining the upper hand” booms today’s Times editorial by Sara Khan, the commissioner to counter extremism and Sir Mark Rowley, former head of counter-terrorism policing. The pair argue that the UK should take a ‘tougher line on extremism’ with legislation that eliminates the gap in our laws between terrorism, which is already illegal, and extremist activity that ‘stops short of the definition of terrorism’.

The editorial is the latest in a long line of articles and think pieces calling for tougher action on online extremism. But what gives this one an added punch is that it has received the blessing of two former prime ministers, David Cameron and Tony Blair, and faith leaders including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi and the chairman of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board.

Readers are told breathlessly that this is a ‘watershed moment’ for the UK and the time for action is now. Which is all well and good — until we get into the murky details of what this actually entails. The two authors suggest that the only way to prevent extremists from ‘mockingly steering’ around the current legal framework is by setting:

A high legal bar based on: intent, evidence of serious or persistent behaviour, promoting a supremacist ideology, and activity that creates a climate conducive to terrorism, hate crime and violence contrary to the Human Rights Act [emphasis mine]
- Sara Khan & Sir Mark Rowley, The Times

There is no further detail as to what ‘intent’ or ‘creating a climate conducive to terrorism and hate crime ’ actually means. Nebulous terms like these are notoriously difficult to prove, and as the example of Big Tech has shown this year, once you start down this road, it tends to accelerate quickly.

But the emphasis on hate crimes (mentioned four times in the editorial) should serve as a cautionary tale for implementing any new measures. When the Guardian reported that hate crimes had risen year-on-year for five years, it vindicated activists and politicians who argued that post-Brexit Britain was a racist, bigoted country.

And yet, a closer inspection of the statistics revealed something quite different: that this was true only insofar as the number of recorded hate crimes rose. The Home Office itself wrote that the rise in hate crimes were mainly driven by ‘improvements in crime recording by the police,’ making it difficult to separate whether there has been a rise in actual incidents of hate crime versus reports. 

Instead, what has arisen out of this spate of hate crimes are a series of embarrassing mishaps for the police. Just this week, Merseyside Police apologised for a billboard reading “BEING OFFENSIVE IS AN OFFENCE”, which, as Dan Hitchens notes in a Post earlier this week, follows on from the Government’s national hate crime awareness campaign:“IT’S NOT JUST OFFENSIVE. IT’S AN OFFENCE.” Similarly, a couple of years before, Harry Miller was told by Humberside Police that he was responsible for a “hate incident” after a poem about trans people was deemed an offence.

These are two examples of many, and while the police are partially at fault, it is also indicative of the increasingly difficult nature of their remit. Creating and adding a ‘terrorist-adjacent’ category into the legal framework will only serve to make their jobs harder.

is UnHerd’s Newsroom editor.