If the government wants to tackle ‘extremism’ it should start with its own policies, leaders and donors

The government’s agenda on extremism is a cynical game for securing political advantage

Rishi Sunak

The UK has been governed by the Conservative Party for the last 14 years. It has been the most divisive government in living memory. It is trailing badly in the opinion polls and is unlikely to be able to defend its economic policies at the next general election. So, it has accelerated culture wars.

There is always a clash between orthodox and progressive worldviews about social practices, institutions of government and rights and wrongs. However, the government has become a major architect of culture wars and is taking a leading role in polarising society for electoral gains.

Culture wars always use populist language to create moral panics and folk-devils by portraying ‘the other’ as undesirable with a view to achieving some kind of hegemony. Protests calling for ceasefire in Gaza have been described by the Prime Minister as ‘mob rule’, but the same description is not applied to pro-Israel rallies. Environmental protesters calling for reduction in the use of fossil fuels are demonised by the government, but companies burning trees to generate electricity are lauded and handed vast subsidies.

This week, without any prior public consultation the government defined extremism as “the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance, that aims to: negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the above”.

The extremists, according to the government include “Islamist and Neo-Nazi groups in Britain, some of which have not been proscribed, are operating lawfully but are seeking to replace our democracy with an Islamist and Nazi society respectively. They are actively radicalising others and are openly advocating for the erosion of our fundamental democratic rights. Their aim is to subvert our democracy”.

Note the populist reference to “our fundamental democratic rights” and how the government portrays itself as the defender of those rights even though it has undermined them (see below).

The definition of extremism specifically targets the Muslim population. It excludes vast swathes of economic and social violence. Profiteering by banks, energy and other companies has condemned millions to poverty and around 300,000 people a year die prematurely in England because they can’t get timely healthcare treatment. No minister ever equates this with mob rule. 77% of mothers say they have had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience at work during their pregnancy, maternity leave and/or on their return to work. Isn’t that undermining the ‘freedoms of others’?

Companies sell products, such as tobacco and processed food, which they know will cause disease and early death but none of this is equated with violence. Companies like P&O Ferries and the Body Shop have sacked workers without any notice, and have openly admitted that they knowingly flouted employment law. But that is not considered to be violence and is not equated with erosion of “the fundamental rights and freedoms of others”, and neither has faced any government action.

Powerful corporations and rich individuals can engage in extremism with full government approval. This week, a £15m bankroller of the Conservative Party racially abused Diane Abbott; the UK’s first black female Member of Parliament. He said that looking at Diane Abbott makes you “want to hate all black women” and added that the MP “should be shot”. The funder’s comments did not draw an immediate condemnation from the government. A senior minister eventually claimed that the comments were “not extremist” even though they referred to “black women” and a call to assassinate a member of parliament. Under mounting public pressure, the Prime Minister has been forced to acknowledge that the comments were “racist and wrong” but the government won’t return his £15m donation, cancel his £400m public contracts, or prosecute him for inciting hatred, intolerance or violence.

The government itself is an example of extremism defined as “negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights”.

In September 2019 the Supreme Court ruled that the government’s suspension of parliament was unlawful. Subsequently, the government used its huge majority in parliament to enact the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2022 which enables the Prime Minister to dissolve parliament without a vote to that effect in the House of Commons.

The Public Order Act 2023 has criminalised protests that can cause “serious disruption” to two or more people or to an organisation in a public place.

Conservative politicians have long consigned workers and trade unions to negative spaces to create possibilities of mega corporate profits and making the rich richer. In the 1980s, Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher referred to striking coalminers as “the enemy within”. Former Conservative Prime Minister Liz Truss referred to British workers as “among the worst idlers in the world” even though they work the longest hours in Europe. The same demonization has continued unabated. The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023  enables employers to sack workers for taking strike action despite meeting all legal balloting requirements. They have no right of appeal or compensation.

In neoliberal discourse recipients of social security have long been portrayed negatively and prone to fraud. The Data Protection and Digital Information Bill now enables the government to snoop on the bank accounts of the recipients of any social security benefit and state pension, mostly the old, sick, infirm, disabled, the elderly and the unfortunate. The snooping would be carried out without their knowledge or court order. Around 25 million affected people would become second class citizens and would not have the right of privacy enjoyed by others. Under the government’s policies, none of the above is considered to be extreme.

Cultural hegemony requires social engineering and education has become a key battle ground in redefining people’s identities. A Minister complained that teachers are pushing left-wing views in classrooms and this bias needs to be “removed from the whole educational system”, and that universities are indoctrinating students with left-wing views. Such populist soundbites rarely withstand any scrutiny. For example, language itself is political and a value free position is not possible. Words such as markets, profits, property, democracy, equality, justice and personal are the outcome of historical struggles and are not value-free. Therefore, it is impossible to speak, write or teach anything that does not carry a political positioning. But the government is not interested in serious debates and is instead using its powers to fuel culture wars for political gains.

The government has ordered that schools “should not under any circumstances work with, or use materials produced by, external agencies that take extreme political positions on these matters. This is the case even if the material itself is not extreme, as the use of it could imply endorsement or support of the organisation.” Examples of “extreme” include “promoting the adoption of non-democratic political systems rather than those based on democracy, for any purpose a publicly stated desire to abolish democracy, to end free and fair elections, or violently overthrow capitalism”.

In essence, the government wants to ban schools from using books which narrate the struggles of working class to secure vote, rights, better wages, welfare services and more. How long before the writings of George Orwell, Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf are banned from schools?

With the arbitrary banning of books, how will future generations learn that in 2019 the government illegally suspended parliament? Children going hungry to schools, visiting foodbanks to collect food donated by others, or pained by the lack of decent housing and healthcare for themselves or their families may well be curious about their social condition. Why is it happening to them? A meaningful answer cannot easily be given without critiquing capitalism where profits are prioritised over people. Any critique would require interrogation of status-quo through the lens of competing theories which would posit alternatives to capitalism and call for equitable distribution of income and wealth. But under the government’s edicts schools must not do that.

For generations people have used protests, sometimes violently, to secure rights. For example, in early twentieth century women used civil disobedience, disruption and violence to secure the right to secure universal suffrage. They were forced into that position because the government sought to exclude them from society. It is similar story for feminist, civil rights and LGBT movements. Through protests and disruption society is renewed, but the government’s culture wars want to close such avenues and produce docile and obedient citizens.

The government’s agenda on extremism is a cynical game for securing political advantage. It fails to tackle social problems and will only deepen social divisions. People need to counter culture wars through solidarity and appeals to human rights and everyone’s right to live a fulfilling life.

Prem Sikka is an Emeritus Professor of Accounting at the University of Essex and the University of Sheffield, a Labour member of the House of Lords, and Contributing Editor at Left Foot Forward.

Image credit: Simon Walker / Number 10 – Creative Commons

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