Banning Russell Brand

Extremism, apathy and surveillance – can the next five years restore trust in politics?

‘For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. This government will conclusively turn the page on this failed approach.’

For many, this statement from David Cameron on 13 May set the tone for the Government’s proposed anti-extremism strategy. A Bill is expected in next week’s Queen’s Speech which will include new powers to restrict the activity of those who seek to radicalise people, as well as powers to close premises, including mosques, where extremists seek to influence others. Charities will be come under greater scrutiny about funding, and the broadcast regulator Ofcom will be have new powers to act against channels showing ‘extremist’ content.

However, given the Government’s criticism of censorship in other countries such as China, there will be fundamental questions over definitions here in the UK. Extremism has been defined by the Government as ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values’. So what would come under the catch-all term of ‘British values’? The Twittersphere has already responded with its own examples of #britishvalues, such as drinking tea, pretending to support a football team, or a cheeky Nando’s.

This is likely to face opposition from across the political spectrum. Indeed, Brother Watch points out that Dominic Raab, now Minister for Civil Liberties at the Ministry of Justice, was himself critical of the proposals when speaking as a backbencher last October. He described them as ‘eroding basic principles of freedom that won’t make us safer’ and warned that ‘extremism disruption orders could be used against ‘monarchists, communists and even Christians objecting to gay marriage’.

Other commentators have warned of the inherent contradiction between banning orders and the core British value that one should be tolerant of different viewpoints. As the BBC’s Mark Easton asks, could Russell Brand’s argument against voting be regarded as threatening democracy?

Next week will also see the resurrection of that most Lazarus-like piece of legislation, the Communications Data Bill. Dubbed by campaigners as the Snoopers’ Charter, this will require internet service providers to retain additional data about their customers, and to make that information available to the Government and security services.

The police and security services argue the additional powers are needed in the face of the increasing use of communications through social media, which intelligence chiefs say is hampering their surveillance capabilities.

Robert Hannigan, the director of GCHQ, has claimed that tech companies are ‘in denial’, describing Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp as ‘command-and-control networks… for terrorists and criminals’. Met Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley has warned about the ‘ambiguity’  created by the amount of traffic on social media.

The Bill had been repeatedly blocked by the Liberal Democrats in Coalition, with Nick Clegg warning earlier this year that, even in the face of terrorist attacks such as at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the powers in the Bill ‘would undermine the very freedoms we cherish’.

And within industry, the Internet Services Providers’ Association has warned that restricting the use of encrypted communication ‘further risks undermining the UK’s status as a good and safe place to do business’.

Although the Bill will likely be contested by the more libertarian-minded within the Conservatives themselves, it is unclear the extent to which a Labour Party in the throes of a leadership contest would oppose the Bill outright. Especially one positioned as vital for combatting terrorism in the Digital Age.

In a speech to Demos last year, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, herself a Leadership candidate, argued the Draft Bill had been ‘rightly stopped’, on the grounds that it had been ‘far too widely drawn, giving the Home Secretary unprecedented future powers, and with too few checks and balances.’ Will a revised Bill change her mind?

At the same time, while this may be the most immediate battle for privacy campaigners, expect to see it coupled with returning calls for reform of the security services in a so-called post-Snowden world, as well as the civilian oversight currently in the form of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

Big Brother Watch’s ‘Time for Transparency’ campaign has already called for greater transparency about how surveillance powers are used, citing public demand for communications companies such as BT and EE to publish their own reports on how often they receive requests for customer data from the police and security services.

Indeed, with the rise of Russell Brand and as a recent audit from the Hansard Society showed, there are links between voter apathy, mistrust of politics, and lack of confidence in those upholding and enforcing standards in public life. As we look ahead to the next raft of legislation, will the new MPs in the coming Parliament be able to redress the balance?