Theresa May on counter-extremism: politics getting in the way of policy

Posturing to be 'tough on terrorism' might win her party votes, but these proposed bits of legislation won’t get through the House

The direction of travel on counter-extremism strategy is entirely positive. On Monday, Theresa May talked about a values-based approach, has identified the merits of tackling extremism of all kinds rather than just its violent incarnations, and now agrees that the policy will need buy-in from many different government departments, as well as non-governmental bodies like charities and schools.

This could have been achieved four years ago by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), but in their neglecting to provide us with concrete solutions to what is a complex policy area, they have made a sword for this coalition’s back. The upshot is that the Home Office resumed control of it, despite the conscious strategic decision after the Prevent review to separate its sharp end from its soft end.

Moreover, the Home Office have then been faced with trying to rush through a strategy that needs departmental buy-in from the Department for Education (DfE), the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the Department for Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS), as well as the aforementioned DCLG. There will necessarily be implications for how those respective Secretaries of States do their jobs, and a sensible way to achieve consensus on this, and pursue a much-needed comprehensive approach to tackling extremism, is to have consultations with each of these departments long ahead of time.

Then there’s the coalition question. All three major parties don’t particularly disagree with the direction of counter-extremism policy, at its soft end. But by having a Home Secretary reveal a direction for the counter-extremism strategy, you inevitably get some policies that the police, also responsible for Pursue, Protect and Prepare, might have to implement. As such, the necessary space between countering extremism of all kinds as a social ill, and countering terrorism because it poses a national security threat, gets eroded.

It is on the sharp end that the Liberal Democrats often disagree with Theresa May, because of the challenges to civil liberties that draconian policies might pose. Take Monday’s mention of Banning Orders when extremist groups don’t meet the threshold for proscription, a measure which I cannot see getting through the yellow half of the coalition.

Ironically it was with these stronger measures such as Banning Orders, the British Values requirements for asylum-seekers, and the promise to close down sharia courts that Theresa May’s speech was weak. Posturing to be ‘tough on terrorism’ might win her party votes, but these proposed bits of legislation won’t get through the House, and May would better focus on the more progressive suggestions that will instead get smart and ‘tough on the causes of terrorism.’ We will not legislate our way out of the current extremism problem and 90 per cent of May’s speech sounded as if she accepted that fact.

But it is in this that there is the danger of politics getting in the way of policy. This portfolio is too important to become a political football and the danger is that unveiling a strategic direction with just a few weeks to go until a General Election will be interpreted as part of a Conservative Party manifesto not a government strategy.

There is a danger that the policies may be dragged to the right to ensure votes aren’t lost to UKIP, or that Labour or the Liberal Democrats respond negatively to it simply to put space between them and the Conservatives. May was correct when she said the whole of society needed to build a partnership against extremism of all kinds, but talking about it at this stage risks alienating potential partners and we cannot let that happen.

A good counter-extremism strategy is about structure, stakeholders, delivery, and timing. Structurally, we need the kind of values-based approach May mentioned on Monday to fill the space between integration and security, and we need someone above the relevant government departments coordinating this portfolio and the duties of the different departments. Stakeholders-wise, we need to consider whether the police are the right people to deliver this work, or whether we can build strong public-private-3rd sector partnerships.

Delivery is all-important: let’s ensure that neither practitioners nor recipients of this strategy are confused about what it asks of British citizens; for this, the proposed Extremism Analysis Unit will be a welcome centralised hub for due diligence but could also assume a training role. Lastly, on timing – we must see something tangible in the first 100 days of a parliament, not when it is due to be dissolved in four days.

If we had movement on this much earlier in the parliament, and the correct department had pursued it, with the right level of consultation, I believe we really would have been able to foster a ‘Stronger Britain, Built on our Values.’

Jonathan Russell is political liaison officer at Quilliam

6 Responses to “Theresa May on counter-extremism: politics getting in the way of policy”

  1. David Lindsay

    If I am not on Theresa May’s Banned List, then I shall sue. As should you, if you are not on it. How dare anybody suggest that one’s views were not “extreme” from the point of view of this Government?

    Banning Orders? The very term used? To forbid pubic speaking by the British Citizens who were subject to them? Theresa May wants to turn some Walter Mitty into Steve Biko.

  2. Gary Scott

    Her speech reminded me of Thatcher outside number 10 in May ’79. With the best will in the world once these plans get into the hands of the pols and senior civil servants they will be ripe for abuse. We already HAVE laws on everything except thoughtcrime. Current gagging laws, FTAs, GCHQ actions and special powers are eroding freedoms we are supposed to be defending. Terror is lower in UK today than its been in half a century.

  3. Leon Wolfeson

    Oh please, civil servants are the evils now?

    But anyway – Er…no, you’re going about it wrong. See, economic terrorism is also terrorism. Capitalism…

  4. Dave Stewart

    Who decides what is extreme?

    Banning extremism is a very dangerous prospect. We already have many laws which ban people from inciting hatred, violence or crimes. We supposedly live in a free country where one of our much trumpeted “British values” is freedom of thought and expression. How can you reconcile defending freedom of thought and expression by banning people from holding or expressing views that some unnamed person or agency has deemed extreme regardless of whether you are actually breaking or inciting anyone to break any laws.

  5. Leon Wolfeson

    The courts, eventually

    I’d love to see the Tories try and prove their economic terrorism wasn’t extreme in court. Especially given the deaths linked to it.

  6. Leon Wolfeson

    It’s more likely the EAU will lead to groups like the CST currently working with the police to withdraw cooperation given the Tories attitude, which will necessarily guide it’s work., if the Tories are relected.

    (I also expect them to “accidentally” stop Beis Din’s working, as a side effect of their changes)

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