Anti-terror measures will make us the ‘extremists’ we fear

In the 1860s when the Austrian ambassador complained to the home secretary, Sir George Grey, about Karl Marx and other revolutionaries, he received a brief and dismissive reply: “Under our laws, mere discussion of regicide, so lengthy as it does not concern the Queen of England and so lengthy as there is no definite plan, does not constitute enough grounds for the arrest of the conspirators.”

Not quite what the recent property secretary would have replied, I suspect. Theresa May possibly is rushing yet one more terrorism bill by way of parliament. This will spot a legal duty on universities to ban radical speakers – “mere discussion” in the phrases of her Liberal predecessor, who probably also took a far more favourable see of currently being labelled “radical”.

Fifty many years ago Malcolm X came to speak in Oxford, an episode now recalled to stir the sentimental memories of the university’s alumni. These days, of program, he would by no means have manufactured it to Oxford the Uk Border Agency would have turned him back at Heathrow. After all even the extremely silly, but vile, Julien Blanc, the seducers’ guru, has been banned.

Malcolm X would almost certainly have fared much better in his homeland. The United States remains a nation of laws girded by a constitution, in spite of police shootings and protest riots. Sadly the United Kingdom is swiftly turning out to be a nation of ministerial discretion and path, ever wider administrative powers that would probably have more than content the 19th-century Prussian and Austrian bureaucrats who have been so anxious about Marx.

Under May’s new legislation, universities will have to follow the “guidance” issued by the Residence Office. If they fail to comply with it, the home secretary will be able to issue them with “directions”. Far from getting regarded as institutions in which the most vigorous (and contested) debates should be encouraged, higher education institutions are now to be treated as fertile ground for the “radicalisation” of gullible students by supporters of “extremism”.

This is not the very first time the government has launched legislation to require universities to ban “extremist” speakers, although paradoxically the initial political intervention back in the 1980s was to end universities, and pupil unions, banning rightwing speakers, extremists of yet another ilk.

But this original, and rather one particular-sided, libertarianism was rapidly succeeded by more authoritarian interventions. Until finally now, the centrepiece has been the “Prevent” approach, begun under Labour and revamped by the current government.

The 2011 white paper asserted the government’s “absolute commitment to defending freedom of speech”. But, in the quite following sentence, it argued that avoiding terrorism meant that “extremist (but non-violent) views” had to be “challenged” – by the administrative measures it then outlined. We have travelled a prolonged road from Grey’s reply to the ambassador.

There is so considerably wrong with the new legislation. The essential terms such as radicalisation, extremism and terrorism will be defined by politicians who are advised by securitocrats, cowed by tabloid-inflamed public view and influenced by electoral benefit.

These definitions will not only, and inevitably, be politicised but are also likely to be expandable and open-ended. Those who express their opposition to United kingdom interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria, perhaps in ill-judged rhetorical language, could properly be caught in the net.

Mission drift is also inevitable. Previous anti-terrorist legislation has been utilized to spy on parents who may possibly be mis-reporting their property addresses to get their children into common colleges. Botched, but pricey, spying on environmental protesters has also been justified beneath legislation that obviously had fully distinct intentions.

But the significant objection is two-fold. Initial, academic freedom, like freedom of speech, is not something to be title-checked and then undermined. It is a basic principle, not because ivory-tower dons deserve to be indulged but because totally free universities are an vital component of a totally free society. The free of charge expression of even the most detestable views must only be curbed by the most exact necessity – back to Grey’s Whiggish formula.

In the situation of universities, there is an further argument. If the war on terror has demonstrated anything, it has shown how minor we in the west comprehend the feelings of others, or know about the countries we have invaded/liberated. To risk curbing that knowing and expertise by discouraging the engagement and dialogue required by scholars and researchers would seem perverse.

2nd, banning “extremist” speakers is a counsel of despair. It accepts that this kind of views are so seductive that they can only be suppressed. There is no self-assurance that, in the battle of concepts, values of openness, tolerance and liberty – these considerably lauded “British” values – will triumph, so we have to be closed, intolerant and authoritarian (rather like the extremists we look for to oppose?).

Sadly higher education leaders, with their default pro-establishment setting, will not make these arguments – or only behind closed doors. May and her successors are unlikely to have to situation any “directions” to universities due to the fact her “guidance” will be so closely followed. In England, even amid this “clash of civilisations”, discreet pragmatism will constantly get precedence in excess of open and principled debate.

Peter Scott is professor of greater training research, Institute of Schooling

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