There is a far bigger threat to Britain than fringe extremists: Tory radicalisation | Rafael Behr

When Thomas Mair was arrested for the murder of Jo Cox MP in 2016, he told police he was a “political activist”. Asked to identify himself in court, he said: “My name is ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’.”

When Ali Harbi Ali, the man who murdered David Amess MP in 2021, was interviewed by police, he claimed to have been serving a “just cause”. Asked if he thought his actions were rational, he replied: “If I thought I’d done something wrong, I wouldn’t have done it.”

Neither man was a member of a banned organisation. They took solitary paths of self-radicalisation. Harbi Ali had cultivated his allegiance to Islamic State on social media. Mair collected mail-order neo-Nazi fanzines.

The two assassins’ doctrines, radical Islamism and white supremacism, are antithetical but not dissimilar. Both summon adherents to holy war. Mair and Harbi Ali shared a sense of sacred duty to avenge injustices against their people. In local MPs from different parties, they found a common concept of the enemy.

That kind of extremism is easy to define. Many people harbour crackpot notions, but thinking extreme thoughts is not illegal. Acting on them in a murderous frenzy is a crime. So is inciting violence.

The hard part is policing ideas that tend away from democracy; identifying movements that have hatred so embedded in their core that no public manifestation can come to any good. This is the labyrinth that Michael Gove, the communities secretary, intends to map with a new government definition of extremism. Organisations that find themselves on the wrong side of the line will not be banned but they might be officially shunned and denied funding.

Ostracising maniacs is not a bad idea. But naming beliefs that can’t be reconciled with democracy is tricky when lots of opinions have a moderate version and a fanatical extrapolation that can justify atrocity.

Jo Cox was killed because she was campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU. Mair saw himself as a soldier in a liberation struggle against foreign powers that conspired to swamp white Britain with migrants. That was a derangement, but it could be reached on a trajectory from the case for Brexit made by mainstream leave campaigners. Remainers were still being called traitors, quislings and saboteurs in parliament and the press for years after Cox’s death.

David Amess was killed, according to his murderer, for voting in favour of airstrikes in Syria and for membership of Conservative Friends of Israel. The analytical core of that justification chimes with views commonly expressed by protesters against UK foreign policy. MPs who do not explicitly denounce government action are accused of moral complicity in the deaths of Muslims in the Middle East. The charge that Westminster politicians have “blood on their hands” is routine rhetoric on the left.

Harbi Ali and Mair cannot be used to discredit the causes they appropriated. They were wild outliers. But they were also droplets of bloody condensation on the periphery of a vast red mist of mainstream grievance.

This is what makes Gove’s task impossible. A vague definition will be impractical as policy, but effective at enraging everyone who feels targeted for opinions they hold without violent intent. A likely effect is expanding the pools of alienation where actual extremists fish for recruits.

The search for a location where the “extremism” happens leads not to a line on the political spectrum but a threshold in the radical psyche. It is a critical mass of perceived victimisation that becomes an obligation to take revenge. It is the cognitive fuse that blows, turning activist into executioner.

Something similar appears to happen in the minds of fanatically self-pitying school shooters in the US, although they aren’t classified as terrorists. In December 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch shot up a Washington DC pizzeria because he believed it was the hub of a vast paedophile ring connected to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. He had radicalised himself into terrorist levels of belief in an online conspiracy theory.

Extremists trying to tear us apart, says Rishi Sunak in impromptu speech – video

With the right combination of social dislocation, communal segregation and a plausible foe, pretty much any set of beliefs can be refined into a fundamentalist cult of redemption through violence.

But those cults tend to be self-limiting because of the heavy demands they make of recruits. It is a full-time commitment, possibly culminating in martyrdom. Most people don’t fancy it.

Of course, democracies must vigilantly monitor traffic in extreme views. But the paradox of a free society is that a tiny minority is allowed to believe things that would, if enacted as majority rule, extinguish freedom for all. Democracy allows the virus of anti-democracy to incubate and trusts that it won’t be contagious.

In theory, the benefits of mutual tolerance are appreciated widely enough to generate a kind of herd immunity against the politics of division and hate.

For that mechanism to work, certain democratic norms have to be respected by those in power. Governments have to recognise legitimate dissent, not only in parliament but also sometimes on the street. Oppositions have to recognise government mandates. Parties that disagree on almost everything have to recognise a shared investment in the institutions and laws that keep the whole system honest.

A prime minister who deferred to the unwritten codes of British democracy would never have dissolved parliament on a whim, as Boris Johnson did when his Brexit plans were thwarted. Conservatives who cared about the rule of law would not support a bill to declare that certain facts about Rwanda, asserted by the supreme court, are no longer true if the government prefers its own facts.

MPs who recognise that democracy is the management of complex competing interests would not pretend it is a matter of simply fulfilling “the will of the people”. They would not cynically foment mistrust of the process that put them in office. They would not say “the whole democratic system is rigged”, as former Conservative deputy chair Lee Anderson did when defecting to Reform UK this week.

The system is flawed, but denouncing it as a conspiracy by elites to defraud the people is a way to accelerate dysfunction towards collapse. The American example is salutary. US politics is so polarised and embittered that there is scarcely any shared vocabulary between left and right to even describe the choices that democracy is meant to settle.

The Republican mainstream is so radicalised it has rallied behind Donald Trump, a man who incited violent insurrection to overturn the democratic order.

Britain is not going down that road, but there are Conservatives revving ideological engines with a Trumpian direction in mind once released from the burden of government. They will not be listed as a threat to British values under whatever rubric Michael Gove devises.

When the set task is defining the kind of extremism that marauds on the fringe, there is no incentive to diagnose the more subtle debilitation of democratic spirit at the centre. A party that has grown arrogant in the habit of wielding power, and is panicking on the brink of losing it, will look everywhere for the origin of discontent except in the mirror.

  • Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist

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