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Artillery Row

Michael Gove’s new definition of “extremism” is extremely silly

We cannot define such a vague term with such vague terms

Did anyone have high hopes for Michael Gove’s definition of “extremism”? How can you trust someone to define the acceptable boundaries of belief when they do not appear to believe in anything except their own right to elevated political status?

“The United Kingdom is a success story,” Gove announces. One waits to hear exactly what the UK is succeeding in but no answers arrive. 

“It is stronger because of its diversity,” Gove continues. This is the sort of cliché that makes it hard to believe that someone is sincere. Don’t get me wrong: there have of course been vast numbers of individuals who have benefited from an increase in racial and cultural diversity (though others, of course, have been disadvantaged). But according to what metrics has the UK been growing stronger?

Gove is just clearing his throat. He is here to talk about “the pervasiveness of extremist ideologies”, which:

… has become increasingly clear in the aftermath of the 7 October attacks and poses a real risk to the security of our citizens and our democracy. This is the work of Extreme Right-Wing and Islamist extremists who are seeking to separate Muslims from the rest of society and create division within Muslim communities.

It confuses me that someone could have missed the pervasiveness of “Islamist extremists” when a teacher was being driven into hiding, a Christian evangelist was being stabbed in the head, thousand were marching over French cartoons, MPs were being made the target of both failed and successful assassination attempts and bombs were going off in British cities and yet now been enlightened by the protests against Israel. What have you been doing? How the smaller, though very real, threat of the “Extreme Right-Wing” has become more clear is also obvious only to Mr Gove. While it is certainly true that both of these phenomena have a narrow and fanatical model of Islam, meanwhile, reducing their ideologies to that is foolish. 

Anyway, here is the definition that Gove and friends have come up with:

Extremism is the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance, that aims to: 

  1. negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or
  2. undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or
  3. intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results in (1) or (2).

The problems are so obvious that I am concerned that it is patronising to spell them out. How do we define the “fundamental rights and freedoms of others”? What makes something a “right” and what makes it “fundamental”? As Miriam Cates MP observed in these pages:

One man’s extremist is another man’s courageous champion of an unpopular cause. Many people claim that gender critical feminists are “extreme” in their belief that males should not be admitted to female spaces.

Indeed. What is to prevent a future government from maintaining that trans-identifying men have a “fundamental right” to be admitted to female spaces, and that to resist such claims is to be an “extremist”? What about the right to asylum? The right to assisted suicide? Unless everybody has some sense of agreement on what constitutes our “fundamental rights”, this definition is unclear and open to all kinds of abuse. 

This is before we get to (3) — the claim that it is an example of “extremism” to “intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results in (1) or (2)”. So, even giving a platform to people who oppose “fundamental rights” — whatever they might be — could have one judged as an “extremist”. It is very difficult to define “intention” after all.

So, hands up everyone who trusts our politicians with such vague and arbitrary rules? What? No one? 

I suspected as much.

This definition is referred to as “engagement standards” — a curious phrase. The argument for such “engagement standards” would not have the power that it does if there was not such an institutional fetish in Britain for “engaging the stakeholders” — or, in other words, giving undue prominence to self-appointed busybodies. As Sam Bidwell has written for The Critic, “[their] influence is validated by a laundry-list of unaccountable institutions which now exercise authority over the way that our country is governed”.

Nor would there be such a need for this kind of discourse if successive governments had not had such a profligate and indiscriminate approach to immigration. It is comically foolish and arrogant to invite millions of people from South Asia and the Middle East into your country and then throw your hands up in the air and shriek because it turns out that a lot of them have very different opinions to yours when it comes to Palestine or social values. Frankly, it is impudent. What did you expect them to think?

Governments have to concern themselves with “extremism” in some way. As with obscenity, our struggle to define it may not mean that we cannot see it — especially as it sometimes arrives with blades, guns and bombs.

Still, it is difficult to imagine Gove’s definition doing any good, and it is easy to imagine it doing harm. A neat summary of his ministerial career.

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