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Government Split Opens Over New Extremism Definition

Michael Gove is working on a new definition of extremism (Alamy)

3 min read

A split has opened in Government as ministers are concerned a new definition of "extremism" drafted by communities secretary Michael Gove could have unforeseen consequences for campaigning around conservative beliefs and unpopular causes.

Gove is expected to unveil a “precise” definition of extremism on Thursday to cut off funding and a formal relationship with fringe groups.

“Gove is always an outlier and hardline, and this [the guidance], I assume... is another iteration of this ongoing tension,” one senior minister told PoliticsHome.

PoliticsHome understands there are fears among ministers the new guidance could have been weaponised against campaigns which have been supported in the past and present by Tory MPs including Brexit, lockdown measures and gender-critical feminism. 

The Government has emphasised such views would not be included within the new definition. PoliticsHome understands the new wording refers to those trying to “undermine democracy”, which a government source said would not pull in MPs or those campaigning for such causes.

However, news of a split among ministers follows a number of senior politicians, Tory backbenchers and activist groups raising the alarm in recent weeks that the new definition could be too broad. 

Former home secretaries Priti Patel, Sajid Javid and Amber Rudd claimed in the Guardian “no political party” should use this issue to “seek short-term tactical advantage.”

They all urged both main political parties to “work together to build a shared understanding of extremism” and a strategy which can stand the test of time.

Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates, who co-chair the New Conservatives, a right-wing pressure group in the parliamentary party, have also both raised concerns over the British state declaring what group or cause constitues as extreme. 

Cates posted on X the country did not need a “broader definition of extremism” and claimed it was a “slippery slope” towards the “abolition of fundamental freedoms.”

In an article for the Critic Magazine, she claimed the State should only step in when people's beliefs “cross the line” into inciting violence or intimidation.  

Meanwhile Kruger recently told Radio 4’s Westminster Hour it was concerning the Government and “state agents” could decide “what’s acceptable in a modern democracy”.

Gove told the Sunday Telegraph in an interview the new definition will replace an old definition of extremism, which was drafted almost a decade ago, and will look to tackle the threat of Islamic and far-right fundamentalism in the UK. 

“The definition will replace the existing Prevent definition and give practitioners more specificity on the ideologies, behaviour and groups of concern to support vital counter-radicalisation work,” he told the paper. 

The Prime Minister’s spokesperson on Monday said the UK had seen an “unacceptable rise in extremist activity” across the country, which was seeking to divide society and hijack Britain's democratic institutions.

“It’s obviously the duty of government to ensure it has the tools it needs to tackle this ever-evolving threat,” they said.

“The new definition and the accompanying engagement principles will be the first in a series of new measures to counter extremism.

“This new more precise definition will be used by government departments and officials to ensure that they’re not inadvertently providing a platform, funding or legitimacy to groups or individuals who advance extremist ideology.”

Groups such as Muslim Council of Britain have also expressed some concern over the expansion of the definition. A spokesperson told the Guardian that both extremism and terrorism were “serious matters that require real leadership and not cynical electioneering.” It claimed it was “monitoring developments and will seek to reserve our position legally.”

Additional reporting from Caitlin Doherty. 

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