New extremism definition: ‘Silencing of dissident voices is a great threat to British democracy and a watershed moment in erosion of our civil liberties’

London, 15th March 2024 – The International Centre of Justice for Palestinians (ICJP) condemns and rejects the UK Government’s new definition of ‘extremism’. This definition seeks to curtail lawful exercise of civil rights guaranteed in a democracy, including the freedom of expression, thought, and protest. 

The new definition was announced in parliament by Communities Secretary Michael Gove. He claimed that this redefinition was a defence of democracy, but instead, it seeks to silence voices that diverge from government thinking. He also hypocritically singled out Muslim communities and organisations, which is particularly damaging rhetoric from the Secretary of State responsible for communities. 

The new definition of extremism is not an isolated attack on democracy and freedom. This government has introduced various legislation and frameworks that have stoked division and criminalised types of peaceful protest. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 gave more sweeping powers to the police and was seen as an attack on the right to protest. In 2023, the Public Order Act was introduced to further increase and expand the powers given to the police. The Anti-Boycott Bill, currently in the House of Lords, is designed to curtail public bodies from engaging in another form of peaceful protests, namely boycotts. These developments will have a ‘chilling effect’ on people seeking to exercise their legitimate democratic rights, as outlined by Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights.

Earlier this month, Prime Minster Rishi Sunak gave a speech outlining his intention suppress protest. Sunak’s speech gave special attention to pro-Palestine marches as he tried to demonise them. Sunak argued that these peaceful protests were somehow a threat to democracy whilst he, and likewise Gove, failed to make mention of far-right groups that were seen to be engaging in acts of violence most recently on Remembrance Day, where 82 far right protesters were arrested in one incident. Data on policing at Palestine solidarity marches, on the contrary, show disproportionately low arrest rates for the hundreds of thousands in attendance.

Jonathan Hall KC, who was employed as the government’s Independent Reviewer of State Threat Legislation in early February, has said that the new definition ‘would not be seen as democratic’. In an unusual move, Hall was not consulted on the new definition. Hall rightfully commented that it is not for the government to decide which protest is to be allowed, doing so is anti-democratic and a step towards totalitarianism. The introduction of laws, frameworks, and definitions that criminalise dissent and further erode civil liberties must not be taken lightly. Those putting democracy on the line must be dealt with accordingly.

Silencing any dissenting voice as ‘extremist’ is in itself extremism. It is a dangerous political tactic that has been used to dangerous effect in the past, such as when Margaret Thatcher infamously dismissed the former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela and his party as a “typical terrorist organisation”.

The right to protest is a key feature of British democracy, which is now facing grave threat from a government that has been seen to increasingly attack civil liberties, marginalised groups, and any voice calling for justice for Palestinians. It made no mention of MPs who have deliberately exacerbated racism and Islamophobia. Finally, it shows staggering hypocrisy from a government that has committed itself to undermining civil liberties during its time in power.

ICJP Senior Public Affairs Officer Jonathan Purcell said:

“This truly is a watershed moment in the erosion of civil liberties in this country. The government are justifying this new extremism definition in the name of ‘unity’ and ‘democracy’. But the reality is that this definition is designed to stoke division and undermine civil liberties. It is doublethink to the extreme.

The most prominent feature of democracy is the acceptance of differences whatever they may be. Silencing of dissident voices is a greater threat to British democracy than anything the government wishes to ban. This isn’t a slippery slope; we are already at the bottom.”


Notes to Editors:

  1. The International Centre of Justice for Palestinians is an independent organisation of lawyers, politicians and academics who support the rights of Palestinians and aim to protect their rights through the law.  
  2. For more information, or to arrange an interview with a spokesperson, please contact the ICJP news desk at [email protected].