The new government is to introduce a counter-extremism bill in the Queen's Speech, which will make the spreading of "extremist" ideas a crime. The Prime Minister argued we have been a "passively tolerant" society for too long.
I first flirted with extremism at the age of seventeen. Persuaded by certain texts and Internet, I became intoxicated, if not indoctrinated, by an anti-democratic thought system that had its roots in a spiritual truth. At university, though, a radical preacher began to influence me more heavily. He made me engage with a system of ideas that found our political system "decadent", that extolled the righteousness of violently overthrowing this system, and which even recommended eugenics to create a society more in line with the Truth.
The extremist thinker was Plato, and the radical preacher was the late Reverend Dr John Hughes of Jesus College, Cambridge. A man who encouraged nips of whiskey in our tea as we discussed philosophy. Luckily I wasn't converted to this radical, hateful ideology. But John found it interesting enough, though it's fair to say he thought the eugenics and war parts were a bit much.
So was I an extremist? Should I have been locked up? Was Dr Hughes an extremist for exposing me to Plato?
I'm trying to cleverly trick you with rhetorical skills, of course. That much of Plato did sink in. The question, though, is serious: is it mad to think the government's new "anti-extremism" proposals could be applied to Plato, when we all assume they're targeted against that force we refer to in one breath as somepartsoftheMuslimcommunitythatfollowanextremistversionofIslam?
The difference isn't clear in the proposed legislation. If, for example, the difference is that these Islamic preachers encourage violence and Dr Hughes encouraged bourbon, then that difference is already covered in law. It's already the case that you cannot encourage people to blow other people up.
Is the difference that Plato and Dr Hughes fit into an academic tradition that is tolerant, intelligent and thoroughly British? John was all three of these things, but actually Plato was only one. I might add that plenty of fundamentalist Islamic philosophy is perfectly intelligent. My degree in Theology exposed me to all kinds of extremely clever forms of vile idiocy.
So isn't a follower of Plato's intelligent attack on the decadence of democracy and in favour of a system ruled by spiritual masters supporting a "vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs"?
We might argue that in practice, such laws would never be applied in that way. Whatever we think of the Conservatives, they are clearly trying to stop a particular problem to do with violent groups, not academic debate. And the courts would never interpret the law that way. But that has never been the point of legally guaranteed free speech. As JS Mill argued, the only way free speech is guaranteed is if it is not at the mercy of the particular views of one government, one generation of judges or the current sense of what is 'decent'. It has to be locked and triple locked into law and backed up by a culture of liberty.
As this government takes its first tentative steps into the light, like a cute little faun that believes in cack-handed anti-constitutional remedies to specific problems, it has made its first priority clear. Getting all the stuff the Lib Dems stopped back in motion again. As Nick Clegg withdrew to the shadows, he warned that the country has never needed liberal values more. He may have had in mind this law, and the upcoming destruction of the Human Rights Act.
This isn't party political. Many Tories are frightened of this proposal, such as David Davis. The new Justice Minister, Dominic Raab, once observed that 'extremism disruption orders' could be used against "monarchists, communists and even Christians objecting to gay marriage". You might like some of those views but hate others. But if you believe in free speech, you want them all to be aired - and to be guaranteed an airing through locked and triple locked law.
Voltaire did not say "I may hate what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it - as long as it doesn't go too far". With the Lib Dems decimated, the Labour Party headless (and frankly prone to similarly authoritarian measures) and the Lords unable by convention to block bills included in a manifesto, the only forces of democracy that can stop this bill are the press and civil society.
Let's present an argument that, ironically, a truly conservative government would - that liberty has long roots in tradition, and should not be cut into with blunt solutions to short-term problems. This law will attempt to stop those "vocally or actively opposed to British values". Let's make those British values vocal and active, and stop this law.