Some issues pass through many organs of the body politic like a barium meal, rendering visible flaws and faults that might otherwise escape detection.
The UK Government’s proposed Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, due to return to the House of Lords this week, is a case in point. Its Part 5, on the Risk of People Being Drawn into Terrorism, would ‘create a duty for specified bodies to have due regard, in the exercise of their functions, to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. It would also give the Secretary of State a power to publish guidance to which specified bodies must have regard when fulfilling this duty. The effect would be to put the existing Prevent programme on a statutory footing.’
The UK’s universities are proposed to be included within the remit of this legislation. The government’s analysis is that the risk of the growth of terrorism lies significantly with a large number of people, themselves non-violent, who ‘create an environment in which terrorists can operate’. This provides a rationale for systematic surveillance of ‘non-violent extremism’. One can just see the glissando which this slippery slope will facilitate.
The chilling effect of this proposal as it relates to universities has generated opposition from surprising quarters including Lord Butler of Brockwell, who was head of the Civil Service for 10 years, Lady Manningham-Buller, Director-General of MI5 for 5 years and Lord MacDonald, Director of Public Prosecutions from 2003-8. All agree that the proposal goes too far towards limiting free speech on the basis that:
- - The proposals are directly contrary to the duty on universities to protect free speech;
- - It is surely a profound irony if we are trying to protect our values by trying to bar views from being heard;
- - They would turn universities into ‘places of surveillance’.
Others have been even more forthright. According to Karma Nabulsi, the Bill is extremism in the name of security and is indeed more dangerous than 1950’s McCarthyism.
Of course free speech is not an absolute value even in supposedly liberal Britain. As Mehdi Hasan pointed out, in the context of the uproar following the Paris massacre, very few of us really believe in untrammelled free speech and he castigates those who unquestioningly support the Charlie Hebdo editorial policy as ‘free speech fundamentalists’. There are lines which either law and order, or taste and decency, prevent us from crossing. There has, however, up to now seemed to be a loose consensus that, in the interests of scholarship, the education of the coming generation and perhaps the intellectual health of society as a whole, these constraints should be as light as possible when applied to universities.
But not, it seems any more. How then do we explain the adoption by this government of policies which even such prime encrusted examples of official bigwigdom should feel compelled to oppose publicly? Broadly, and not putting too fine a point on it, government and opposition are both becoming prisoners of the security establishment – which tends of course to favour the extension of its own powers. With the genuinely increased threat of terrorist outrages, the security state has the two main parties, at least, over a barrel, or rather over two different barrels.
Given that an atrocity will almost certainly happen (like the 1930s dictum that ‘the bomber will always get through’) no government dares to run the risk of refusing the police and spooks a power which it might subsequently be claimed would have prevented the carnage. And no opposition dare be outbid by the government on security for fear of appearing weak. This logic of course only applies to political parties that have come adrift from their principled moorings.
Let’s consider for a moment how this legislation might impact on public debate on a topic that is not superficially the target of this legislation: the Israel/Palestine conflict. Despite the fact that some people might consider Israel to be engaged in state terror, that is not how our government sees it and this is certainly not legislation designed to apprehend Mossad agents. And neither is Hamas designated as a terrorist organisation by the UK or the European Union. No, Israel/Palestine features in the debate about these proposals because it sits astride a fault-line which tests our belief that we live in a fundamentally liberal country.
Of course the legislation is not primarily formulated with Israel/Palestine in mind. It is instead the ongoing assaults in the Middle East and Africa by Islamist jihadis that are uppermost – along with the magnetic attraction they exert on some young Muslims from the UK and elsewhere who are not offered much in the way of prospects by the countries they live in. The Prevent programme is designed to obstruct recruitment to their ranks. Indeed it has already been operating in this way for some years. University meetings and public events called to discuss key national debates of the day have quite often been cancelled or obstructed. But, under the provisions of this Bill, the formerly quasi-voluntary cooperation now becomes a legally enforceable duty. All interpretation of key terms (eg ‘terrorism’ or ‘non-violent extremism’) will rest with the state, enforced if necessary by executive sanctions and court orders. That is, monitoring and control will become obligatory rather than optional.
It is precisely on the issue of Israel that this oppressive behaviour has so far been most consistently felt. At my own institution, the London School of Economics, a variety of administrative measures have been deployed from time to time over the past several years to transform the ability to hold a meeting on campus about Israel/Palestine into a lottery. How does this work?
- - If the meeting is jointly sponsored by an outside body, a hefty room hire charge is made.
- - If the administration decides in its wisdom that disorder is possible (despite this never having occurred) then the student society has to pay for security staff making it prohibitively expensive.
- - A responsible chair is required, which would be no problem as we have numbers of staff members willing to do this – but the administration may impose a ‘neutral’ chair.
- - Admission may be restricted only to LSE students or, maybe still more narrowly, to those who have signed up by the day before – thereby guaranteeing a smaller audience.
Or they can just refuse outright.
If the Bill becomes law one can expect this type of bureaucratic noose to tighten. We can expect it will become still harder to hold informative and mobilising meetings at times of crisis (the next assault on Gaza), or to gather support for action like the proposed academic and cultural boycott of Israel. And it will spread of course to other activities where citizens are proactive. Roads and environmental protests? Anti-nuclear demonstrations? UK Uncut direct actions? Support for foreign liberation movements?
Meanwhile those students who might become proto-jihadis will go on meeting each other at suitable venues on and off campus, while liberal Britain erodes from the inside.
This article is part of the Education strand of the Liberalism in neoliberal times series that OurKingdom is running in partnership with Goldsmiths, supported by the Department of Sociology. You can read Gholam Khiabany's introduction to the whole series here.