With Theresa May’s counter-terrorism and security bill at its final stages in the House of Lords, the major question before us all now is: how did something more dangerous than 1950s McCarthyism in its anti-democratic provisions get through the gates?
It entered the bloodstream of the body politic because we were told these measures were not about us: they were about them. We were told to avert our eyes and to watch from the sidelines in this battle to make us safe, in the Hobbesian contract to frighten us into surrendering our freedoms.
Make no mistake: the British values we all hold dear are under direct threat. If this legislation affecting any sector of our society – our schools, boroughs and civic space as well as our universities – is passed, the core of what unites this country will be lost. The danger is not in our communities or schools. The true danger resides in the extremist and anti-democratic values of Theresa May and her deluded advisers, and in politicians’ self-interested fear of being cast as supporting terrorism. This even though they were elected to protect us from this fatal attack on our liberties.
Many peers expressed concern, but when highlighting aspects of this invasive control of our universities, schools, and national institutions they seemed quite unaware that its provisions (through the Prevent policy, set up in 2011) are already having lethal effects across the country, closing down public space where freedom lives.
Already academics asked to host a distinguished professor of political Islam first consult the police, and are told that this everyday university event requires a strong police presence. Already, they are refusing to hold the event on their premises, citing the potential threat to students. Up and down the country, chaos and confusion already reigns in our police forces and within our educational institutions on what the Prevent strategy is actually meant to prevent.
Urgently needed scholarly and public events enlightening students and citizens about key national debates of the day are already being shut down, on the grounds of “security”.
Already, there is conflation between extremism and hate speech and the Palestinian struggle for freedom. A recent government report on antisemitism cited the flying of the Palestinian flag by a borough council during the recent Gaza war as an illustration of it.
For some ministries, criticism of Israeli policies is now antisemitism and extremism. Everyday criticism and debate on the role of British wars and unjust western policies in the Middle East are portrayed as extremist rather than as essential to democratic deliberation. Citizens from minorities are already being targeted and scapegoated without igniting a national uproar. The death of our democracy has begun; we can already see what it looks like.
A case was made in the Lords last week to exempt universities from the irrational provisions of this new counter-terror legislation. These arguments illustrate the ideological tautologies of what is being demanded. Ban critics of democracy: bye-bye, second-year Plato. Avoid debate of key British foreign policy issues that might be exploited by terrorists: farewell to defending international law enshrining the right to resist colonialism and foreign military occupation. If this bill is rejected, and British freedom preserved, our history books will certainly be asking the question of the hour: where on earth was Labour at this crucial moment for British values?
This is, however, about a great deal more than freedom of speech. Its attack on the very foundations of democracy disenfranchises each of us, no matter what work sector, class, or “community” we come from, and whether we are on the left or on the right or somewhere in the centre. It affects more than our universities, as only one of the sites of free speech in our public sphere, but not the only one – and certainly not more precious than our boroughs, schools, or other national civic institutions as protected democratic space. The bill’s claim of what potentially constitutes extremism is so removed from reality that it will do nothing to actually “prevent people being drawn into terrorism”.
Extremism is here described as “vocal or active opposition to British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”. Yet even a cursory reading of the workings of this bill demonstrates that it goes against each of these goods. It is against British values. It goes against the very meaning of democracy. It is completely against the rule of law and individual liberty. It flies in the face of mutual respect and tolerance.
This bill represents the rise of ideological extremism masquerading as British values. Every citizen needs to become informed about what this legislation will do, and how profoundly it affects them. Directed against Britain’s cherished freedoms and its citizens, the bill itself is an extremist act.
In a democracy many core values are contested, and certainly Britain has many vibrant political traditions. Indeed some people might hesitate to identify the young Churchill as representing the best of British values when he was a colonial adventurer of the worst sort. But who today in Westminster would not stand alongside him as representing those values at the critical hour the country was under direct threat – that heartening moment he stood up and swore that Britain would not surrender its freedom?
Crossposted from The Guardian, with thanks.