UK government tensions over ‘extremism’ and multiculturalism
After AV it is now the issue of extremism and multiculturalism where the two men differ on the limits of tolerance
Google Maps suggests it’s a 754-mile drive from Munich to Luton. It’s also quite a long journey between two political philosophies if social policy road trips are your minibreak of choice. On 5 February, David Cameron went to Munich and said “state multiculturalism” was dead. Condemning Islamophobia, he issued tough love. The rules of the game should change, he said, and the government’s new counter-terrorism strategy should come down hard on non-violent, as well as violent, extremists.
There should be tests for groups wanting taxpayer money. And, ministers could not appear on the same platform as extremists of any hue. End of.
Advisers cheered in the wings. At last their leader had gone where they wanted on terror, community, Islam, and being British. But Cameron and Nick Clegg had some dialogue over the nature of the speech, which remained unresolved when the prime minister delivered it.
On 3 March, Clegg went to Luton, a town associated with both the extremist Islamist al-Muhajiroun group and the far-right English Defence League. He said he disagreed with Cameron: multiculturalism that “welcomed diversity but resisted division” was to be embraced. The distinction between violent and non-violent extremism was an important one to be maintained.
And, by the way, Lib Dem ministers would be appearing on the same platform as extremists. To persuade, he said, you needed to engage. New spiky Clegg. The speech was Liberal, distinct.
Miraculously, at this point, the car journey comes to an end without tears. Instead there is a warm fellow feeling; some healthy principles are laid down on coalition government.
For all the very public spats during the AV referendum it was actually over the issue of extremism and multiculturalism, a month earlier, that the two men had decided they could and would disagree. Those who questioned the effect that government at loggerheads would have on policy making were told that two would become one in the seamless creation of government policy. So this week, or next, will herald the publication of Prevent, the government’s counter-terrorism strategy.
However, Prevent is running five months late during which there has been a quiet display of prime ministerial power to tame one of Whitehall’s highest-profile civil servants.
Charles Farr, head of the office of security and counter-terrorism, is the kind of character the Bond-infatuated prime minister might like to watch, prone on the couch of a Sunday with a leftovers sandwich. But Cameron and his advisers have viscerally disagreed with Farr, who believes that to get to the really nasty guys, you have to engage with the not-so-nasty guys.
When, in Munich, Cameron said that working with non-violent extremists to help unlock the more violent ones was “like turning to a rightwing fascist party to fight a violent white supremacist movement”, he was talking to Farr.
Farr has worried the troops so much that David Maclean, now Lord Blencathra, tabled a parliamentary question to ask which “outside people” had been involved in Prevent. By which he was interpreted to mean Islamists. Less formally, Cameron’s advisers have been asking whether the Munich speech could become policy or whether Farr was just too powerful.
They think they have the answer now. A process of re-education for Farr has been conducted by Cameron and Theresa May, the home secretary. “Charles Farr isn’t the bogeyman that some seem to want to believe he is,” one official told me who had very definitely called Farr a bogeyman at the start of the Prevent talks. “I read somewhere,” said another official, “that Charles had blown a gasket on reading the PM’s Munich speech. I thought that was funny, because I was with Charles as he read it. He read it in front of me. No gasket was blown.”
Note, though, the close surveillance of their head of surveillance.
So next week’s review should be Munich heavy. The government will make good Cameron’s pledge to ban foreign hate preachers and will bring in a new link between extremism and violent extremism. Then there will be proper scrutiny of groups “to make sure they are effective, not extremist, and reflect mainstream British values”.
Groups that have illiberal views on women? Well, they can’t be banned, but they won’t be worked with. Indeed, in general, the government will accept that it will have trouble banning groups and so won’t get new proscription powers.
As a plaintive parting shot, one of Farr’s staff wonders out loud whether the government will be sensitive in announcing Prevent, suggesting the PM’s language in Munich might have been unnecessarily aggressive.
Whither multiculturalism? Prevent, say allies of May, was never meant to wrap up the unresolved government debate on multiculturalism. Instead that will be left to Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, and others in government.
For Lib Dems, there is an opportunity. But there is Tory trepidation. The cabinet subcommittee dealing with integration includes Lady Warsi, the Tory co-chair, who is more respectful of the multiculturalism derided by her boss. Oliver Letwin is in there, but he is a softly-softly, consensus-seeking politician. Andrew Stunnell, the junior communities minister, is the Lib Dem on the committee and he’ll give short shrift to the Munich agenda – he decided to go to the Global Peace and Unity event that Tories banned their own ministers from attending for its Islamist links.
Then there is Pickles. During his time as leader of Bradford council, he had to deal with riots in the city over Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses. He was also the councillor in charge of education when the headteacher Ray Honeyford penned a piece for The Salisbury Review attacking multiculturalism. Tories suspect lingering scars from that period, which could tip Pickles on to the side of the Lib Dems.