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Artillery Row

Turning the tables on coercion?

Lord Walney’s report on political extremism is valuable if flawed

In a substantive and heavyweight intervention, Lord Walney, the government’s independent adviser on political violence and disruption, has today published a 131,000-word (!) report entitled “Protecting our Democracy from Coercion.” It serves as an important taxonomy on the “Red-Green” alliance that has dominated our streets in recent months.

It is a report which brings both challenges and opportunities. The challenge here lies in the timing — Walney’s report is submitted towards the end of this Parliament. The opportunity comes from the renewed importance of these issues: Westminster itself has become increasingly nervous about protest, most notably when the Commons descended into chaos on 21 February, with the Speaker breaking convention to accept a Labour amendment, citing the intimidation some MPs were facing in their constituencies.

Past reports in similar territory, most notably William Shawcross’ 2023 independent review of Prevent, have been weak on the Far-Left – a mistake Walney goes to some length to rectify. This is entirely appropriate: few campaigns in recent years have had a greater impact on our politics than the marches organised by six groups headed by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which have seemingly taken over swathes of central London every other Saturday.

For the first time, this report fully catalogues the campaign of Palestine Action against Israeli linked factories and businesses in this country, something correctly compared to the animal rights activism of earlier eras. By November 2023 defence company Elbit had logged 170 incidents of Palestine Action carrying out attacks against 37 companies in just three years. Walney proposes a protective buffer zone around certain sites and/or injunctions against protestors not to enter such a zone, as well as compensation for workers who lose earnings because of political protests.

With the cases of Batley Grammar (2021) and the Wakefield Quran scuffing controversy (2023) in mind, Walney is on firm ground in recommending statutory guidance on managing blasphemy-related incidents in schools, and guidance which upholds teachers’ freedom of expression; indeed, Policy Exchange called for just such a move last year. Walney declares, “schools are not required to engage with or appease local activist groups or religious institutions.” There is much to be done to disseminate this reality, but legally binding guidance to our schools is an important first step.

There are many good details in Walney’s report – where proposed changes could make a difference. It is correct, for example, that he seeks to push back further against the wearing of masks on protests, something increasingly noticeable since the pandemic. Polling indicates the public is overwhelmingly opposed to disruptive protests, criminal damage and violence at demonstrations. This evidence base, alongside an ideological commitment to the rule of law and the principles of liberal democracy, leads to a recommendation central and local government should commit to not engaging with activists who break the law. Challengingly, Walney also seeks to extend this, not just to government, but to the representatives of all mainstream parties.

The failure of the authorities to act against those calling for ‘jihad’ at the Gaza protests rightly provokes Walney’s ire. Notably, he reiterates the pivotal question – who precisely has been advising the Metropolitan Police and what has been the impact of advice concerning the behaviour of Islamists at demonstrations? Here only full transparency, concerning both advisory groups and their members, will do. The charge of differential or two-tier policing is not going to go away, and over time risks becoming increasingly corrosive.

There is at least one area where Walney is over-prescriptive. In seeking to make the organisers of those behind long-running or large-scale protests pay for the right to protest, he risks introducing perverse incentives into our democracy — a type of class system but for protest groups. There are some very deep pockets in these movements — Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil for example, enjoy the support of multi-millionaires and indeed billionaires. Those agitating on international and foreign friendly issues may combine not just wealthy backers here but be able to access overseas funding. The leaders of such campaigns would take any invoices from the police or council in their stride. Potentially smaller, less fashionable but equally heart felt campaigns could be priced off the streets, with the under-funded police gladly taking payment from large, well-organised campaign groups!

If there is much that is positive in Walney, the biggest question is how is all this going to be implemented? For a report to be both accepted and fully actioned, its recommendations must avoid vague terms such as “the Home Office should examine”, or “Ministers consider” but equally not be so precise that Ministers no longer possess a free hand. In calling for restriction on the activities of groups which have a policy of committing offences for which the penalty is imprisonment (but whose actions sit below the threshold of terrorism) this report raises more questions than answers. Calling for improved police intelligence and collaboration between central and local agencies is all a little general, and this is tucked behind a request for the His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services to conduct a short review on whether undercover surveillance is being used appropriately.

Finally, some problems sit beyond Walney. Certain challenges this society faces are less legal, than political. Do political parties at the national and local level possess the will to maintain their own values when challenged by relatively well organised Islamist actors? As a society we are yet to develop the resilience to hold difficult conversations with activists and campaigners whose values and actions, as at Batley, threaten our own. The independent adviser on political violence and disruption can signpost some of the way, but others now need to step up, if political coercion is to be defeated.

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