by Andrew Brons
The Rule of Law requires that people are treated by the police and the courts according to the same criteria and are not treated arbitrarily. However, to ensure that, both criminal offences and police powers must be defined clearly and without ambiguity.
If offences or police powers are undefined or ambiguous, we are at the mercy of partisan or arbitrary treatment by the state. Lack of clarity or ambiguity might be the result of muddled thinking by legislators or administrators or it might be the product of something much more sinister. Those in the Governing Class who seek to use arbitrary and partisan power against their political opponents, will choose and use ambiguity to achieve this end.
The word extremism is a prime example. The media use it (and its derivatives extreme and extremist) to refer both to those who use violence and criminality to achieve their objectives and to those act legally and peacefully but whose substantive policies and ideologies are disapproved of by the Political Class.
I suppose we must tolerate sloppy wording by the privately-owned media. However, when official law enforcement agencies use ambiguous language to define the legitimacy of their activities, we have reason to be concerned.
The Metropolitan Police Counter-Terrorism Command was formed in October 2006 with the merger of the Anti-Terrorism Branch and Special Branch. What are the functions of this unit? “Detecting, investigating and preventing terrorist threats and networks.” “What’s wrong with that,” you might ask. Nothing at all! Terrorism is defined in the Prevention of Terrorism Act and is a very real danger and must be prevented and its perpetrators brought to justice. Let there be no doubt about that.
However, it continues to say that it acquires and uses intelligence and evidence about, not just terrorism but extremism and it provides advice and support to tackle the ideologies that drive, not just terrorism, but extremism.
Exremism, unlike terrorism, is not defined in law. In 2009, the Guardian raised this problem with the Metropolitan Police and was told that a working definition of extremist might be: “Individuals and groups that carry out criminal acts of direct action in furtherance of a campaign” or “people who seek to prevent something from happening or to change legislation or domestic policy outside of the normal democratic process”.
The first part of this is unproblematic. Criminal acts, even if they fall well short of terrorism, are the legitimate concern of law enforcement agencies. However in the words of Professor David Howard, the second part could be seen as, “a conflation of legitimate protest with terrorism”.
Nevetheless, this off-the-cuff definition did confine itself to the methods used by organisations and not with their substantive objectives.
However, a sub-department within the Ministry of Justice is the National Offender Management Service, referred to by the acronym, NOMS. It produced some guidance for police officers in a hefty booklet. On pages 152 and 153 it referred to Far Right Wing Extremists (not confined to violence and so must include the nebulous incitement to racial hatred) motivated by a political or cultural viewpoint that includes all of the following: extreme nationalism, fascism and neo-nazism.
Extreme Nationalism is no more defined than is extremism, so the definition is circular. Racism, a term invented by Trotsky in 1930, lacks a legal definition. It is sometimes used to refer to people who simply recognise the reality of racial differences but is also used to refer to people who hate or encourage others to hate people of other races.
The question that needs to be asked is whether this presupposes that somebody with a viewpoint (another word for opinion or belief) that NOMS regards as extreme nationalist or racist will be steered towards criminal activity by that viewpoint or whether the police will confine themselves to those who have already strayed into criminality. I think that we can be fairly confident that the police will make the former supposition.
How do we know this? Because Special Branch and officers from other forces have always kept careful surveillance of all of our members and taken photographs of all of our activists. Furthermore, the previous Home Secretary, Amber Rudd justified her action of banning National Action not just by reference to their supposed endorsement of terrorism but also to their vile ideology – not a ground for banning an organisation in law. I am not acquainted with National Action’s ideology so I cannot possibly comment. I have always thought them to be suffering from a sort of political Tourette’s syndrome.
In ordinary areas of criminal law, we know that crimes can be committed with motivations that are not in themselves criminal.
Theft is invariably committed by people with a desire for personal enrichment but we would not presauppose that people in business who are undoubtedly motivated by a desire for personal enrichment are simply thieves in waiting, who should be kept under police surveillance.
Sexual offences are presumably committed by people with a desire for sexual gratification. However, nobody would suggest that all of the sexually active should be watched closely as potential rapists.
We cannot presuppose that those with Racial Nationalist views are people who are, by definition, plotting at least to incite hatred or perhaps to carry out racial attacks. We are not.
To use a body with the title Counter-Terrorism Command to keep tabs on law-abiding dissentients has a clear political purpose. It is to spread the message to police officers, to the media and to the public that dissentients are simply terrorists in waiting.
To use the word extremist to refer both to terrorists and to law-abiding people who differ from the Political Class, is to smear the reputations of those who dissent, however lawfully. It is also to facilitate and to encourage the misuse of state power.