Extreme Prejudice

The government, under its own new definition, is an extremist organisation.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 19th November 2023

As good citizens, we are told, we should report extremism to the authorities. It hasn’t always been clear what this term means, so we should be grateful to Michael Gove’s levelling up department, which has proposed a new definition. “Extremism is the promotion or advancement of any ideology which aims to overturn or undermine the UK’s system of parliamentary democracy, its institutions and values.” As a responsible member of society, I would like to report a gang of malcontents whose behaviour clearly fits this description.

For several years, this extremist organisation has been undermining the UK’s system of parliamentary democracy. It has blocked access to voting, deterring perhaps some hundreds of thousands of people from participating in the most recent local elections. One member of the extremist gang freely admitted that this attack on democracy was deliberate, describing it as “gerrymandering”.

Through a combination of organised lying, cheating and a flagrant disregard for the lives of people in this country, expressed most obviously during the pandemic, this gang has trashed public confidence in democracy. A poll this year found that as a result of its antics, only 6% of voters now fully trust the political system. This raises a difficult issue as, under Gove’s definition, it could mean that 94% of us are now extremists. Perhaps we should also report ourselves.

As for our institutions and values, the same extremist organisation, apparently intent on destroying national morale, has turned our rivers into open sewers; allowed schools to face bankruptcy while their buildings collapse through lack of maintenance; undermined the NHS until it is thrown into permanent crisis; excluded millions from economic life, leaving them underhoused and dependent on food banks; failed to prevent the takeover by organised criminals of the waste disposal industry; allowed the City of London to become the world’s major entrepot for money-laundering and corrupt transactions; promoted the extraction of fossil fuels during a climate emergency; and enabled blatant profiteering during a national health emergency.

Mr Gove might also take an interest in this gang’s incitement of hatred for political gain: a mark of extremism by any definition. One leading member of the organisation, for example, has recently described homelessness as a “lifestyle choice” and peaceful protests as “hate marches”. Another proposes that asylum seekers should “fuck off back to France”. Isn’t it time the authorities investigated such people? They’re not hard to find. Gove knows where they live.

Of course, charges of extremism and terrorism have long been wielded as weapons to suppress dissent. They are constantly redefined to include political enemies and exclude political friends. For example, in the 2000 Terrorism Act, the charge was cast so loosely that MPs and campaigners warned it would be used against entirely peaceful people.

They were right. As soon as it was passed into law, the act was used to justify the widespread use of stop and search powers, which the police deployed, to general gasps of surprise, to harass Black and Brown people and arrest and detain peaceful protesters. One police force cited the possession of “anti-Blair info” as grounds for suspectingterrorism. When, in 2005, the 82-year-old delegate Walter Wolfgang shouted “nonsense” while the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, was justifying the Iraq war at the Labour party conference, he was bundled out of the hall and refused readmission by the police on the grounds that he had breached section 44 of the act (pushed through Parliament by one Jack Straw).

Until its dissolution in 2015, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), a private limited company financed by the government, seemed to operate like a private militia, unaccountable to the people of this country. It ran something called the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, which was supposed to monitor and root out “extremism”. It was this unit that employed the police spies sent to infiltrate peaceful protest movements, some of whom, using their false identities, seduced activists and fathered children with them to enhance their cover: actions that look to me like state-sanctioned rape.

ACPO units ran lists of “domestic extremists”. A typical example was Dr Peter Harbour, a 70-year old retired physicist and university lecturer who had peacefully marched and petitioned against a proposal by a power company to drain a beautiful lake and fill it with pulverised fly ash. Police working for these units were given spotter cards to help them identify the “extremists” on the list, and their targets were repeatedly stopped, regardless of whether they had ever broken any law. The charge of extremism was used then, and is used today, to deter people seeking to hold power to account.

It is not just the law that seeks to tar dissenters as extremists. Those who challenge unaccountable power are largely excluded from public life, on the grounds that their views are “unreasonable” and “extreme”. You might be allowed to contest the outcomes I listed in paragraphs two and three, but not the doctrines that caused them.

When, for example, did you last hear an overt critique of capitalism on the BBC? This is the system that dominates our lives, and is driving Earth systems towards collapse. If we’re not able to discuss it, or to have an honest conversation about what it really is, how can we address our common challenges? But even to raise this – one of the most important issues on Earth – is to find yourself, as I know to my cost, labelled an extremist by senior BBC managers.

When did you last hear a discussion about access to natural wealth – land, water, atmospheric space – an issue that should dominate global discussions as we race towards a series of crises driven disproportionately by the consumption of the very rich? The wealthy can seize and hoard as much natural wealth as their money allows, causing pollution and destruction out of all proportion to their numbers, while billions are excluded from even the barest prosperity.

While those who raise such issues, legitimate and essential as they are, are excluded, genuine extremists now populate the House of Lords. Among these is Claire Fox,who has never disowned her comment, after the IRA’s Warrington bombing, that she defended “the right of the Irish people to take whatever measures necessary in their struggle for freedom”. Why? Because her extreme views on other issues – the freedom of the powerful to do as they please – align with the demands of Tory sponsors.

The kind of extremism that destroys national life is sanctified by power. Under Liz Truss, the neoliberal junktanks of Tufton Street got everything they wanted, and caused an economic shock from which millions still suffer. Since then, they’ve continued to populate the airwaves, promoting their outrageous demands as if nothing ever happened. Liz Truss is seeking to send some of them to the House of Lords.

Laws and powers ostensibly designed to counter extremism, such as the 2022 Police Act and the 2023 Public Order Act, and widespread abuses of the Prevent programme, are themselves a form of extremism: dictator’s instruments undermining a system that claims to be a democracy. Michael Gove’s new proposals are also, under his own definition, extremist, attacking the political freedoms supposed to sit at the heart of British life. He should do us all a favour and hand himself in.