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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
George Monbiot

Who are the real extremists? The people challenging injustices or those trying to shut down our rights?

Just Stop Oil protesters in Parliament Square, London, December 2023.
Just Stop Oil protesters in Parliament Square, London, December 2023. Photograph: Peter Marshall/Alamy

It’s not hard to spot the extremists inflaming public passions in Britain and disrupting our lives. They play an active role in politics, and sometimes claim to be running the country. But I’m not sure many people have understood just how far they are prepared to go.

The new report by the government’s “independent adviser on political violence” and crossbench peer, John Woodcock (Lord Walney), is bad enough: horrifying in fact. It proposes that the government should restrict the ability of protest groups “to organise or fundraise”, tighten the laws against protest even further and, driving what could be a final nail, permit any businesses targeted by protesters, or people disrupted by them, to pursue them for financial damages.

It was going to be even worse. The report was widely trailed – including by Woodcock himself – as treating the non-violent campaigns Just Stop Oil and Palestine Action as if they were terrorist groups, and proposing they should be banned. But last week, Woodcock was interviewed on the News Agents podcast, and it all fell apart. He seemed incapable of answering or, in some cases, even understanding the questions. Though he has had three years in which to compile this report, it was as if he had never been challenged on these issues before, or thought about them in any depth.

My guess is that someone in government realised that what Woodcock was proposing was about to run headlong into reality. I can picture days of frantic editing to avoid a total fiasco. Among the proposals that survived the cull was Woodcock’s call for “protective buffer zones” around “defence companies and energy providers”. It happens that Woodcock works for lobby groups that represent both arms manufacturers and fossil fuel companies. Among their clients are companies that have been targeted by both Just Stop Oil and Palestine Action.

Even if you could overlook this crashing conflict of interest, a basic qualification for independent advisers is that they should be, ahem, independent. Woodcock is anything but. He resigned as a Labour MP in 2018 while he was being investigated for alleged sexual harassment in the form of inappropriate texts and emails: an allegation he denies, but which has never, as far as I can tell, been satisfactorily resolved. He then urged people to vote Conservative at the 2019 election. Boris Johnson made him a life peer.

Before his review had begun, he appeared to prejudge the issues, telling the Telegraph that – though no such violence has yet been committed – a “far-left minority” could promote “unacceptable violent tactics in the future”. Ah yes, “in the future”. The same slippery-slope fallacy could be used against anyone who wants political change.

This bizarre choice for an independent adviser is part of a pattern. In 2021, the government appointed William Shawcross as its reviewer of the Prevent programme, a state anti-radicalisation project widely accused of unfairly targeting peaceful Muslims and other non-violent people. It is hard to think of a less appropriate choice. Shawcross was previously director of the opaquely funded Henry Jackson Society. It was later described by one of its founders, Matthew Jamison – after he became disillusioned by the turn it had taken – as a “a far-right, deeply anti-Muslim racist organisation … utilised as a propaganda outfit to smear other cultures, religions and ethnic groups”.

Shawcross himself has made statements that have been perceived as Islamophobic and aligned with the “great replacement theory” (which contends that the growth in the populations of Muslims and other groups will render white people a minority in Europe). For example, when he ran the society, he argued that “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations.” Previously he claimed in a column about Islamism, “we really are threatened by a vast fifth column … there are thousands of European-born people … who wish to destroy us”.

To no one’s surprise, Shawcross’s review, in 2022, claimed that there been too much emphasis on the terror threat presented by the far right and not enough on the terror threat presented by Islamists. The former police lead for Prevent, Sir Peter Fahy, described Shawcross’s conclusions as an attempt to “politicise counter-terrorism policing”. In 2019, the police had reported that the far right was the UK’s fastest-growing terrorism threat.

Another former employee of the Henry Jackson Society is the UK’s “independent” commissioner for countering extremism, Robin Simcox. Previously, he worked for the Centre for Social Cohesion, which was founded by the rightwing demagogue Douglas Murray, and was notorious for stirring up anti-Muslim paranoia. The centre was incorporated into the Henry Jackson Society while Shawcross was the society’s director. Simcox worked at the society for a few years, then moved on to Heritage Foundation in the US, a hard-right lobby group funded by a grim assortment of billionaires and fossil fuel interests.

Simcox has spoken at the Center for Immigration Studies in the US, which has a track record of publishing white nationalist literature. He has also downplayed Islamophobia and characterised Extinction Rebellion as a threat.

Just the man, in other words, to police extremism and determine the boundaries of free speech. How was his appointment made? Under the radar. In 2021, the then-home secretary, Priti Patel, appointed him as “interim” commissioner, avoiding proper scrutiny and the need to interview other candidates for the role. His contract was later renewed, and he is still there today. Moreover, as Middle East Eye has documented, the charter limiting his role’s powers was quietly withdrawn in July 2023. This appears to enable him to align his work with government policy, as an “independent” commissioner never should.

The government has repeatedly blurred such lines. For example, when Liz Truss was minister for equalities, she announced that the new chair and members of the “independent” Equality and Human Rights Commission she had appointed would “drive” the government’s “agenda forward”, which is exactly what the commission should not do. The result, ever since, has been chaos and conflict.

None of this is about keeping us safe. It’s about policing the boundaries of debate, suppressing attempts to challenge economic power and stifling protest against environmental destruction, the massacre of Palestinians and other great harms. Who are the extremists here? The people using the power of peaceful protest to raise awareness and lobby for political change, or the people, like John Woodcock, seeking to shut down so many of our democratic rights?

  • George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist

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