While debates abound about who first coined this phrase, it is repeatedly used whenever there are questions of one’s rights being eroded if one is not watchful.  In the current context of counter-extremism and terrorism in the UK and recent labelling of groups such as Extinction Rebellion as an extremist ideology, there are arguments for an expanded vigilance in a number of arenas.  But does this protect freedoms or constrain them?

Three cases in different arenas – prisons, police, probation, schools – are generating discussion

1. Lie detectors

The most recent is the proposed package of tougher sentencing and monitoring protocols for convicted extremists – a minimum of 14 year jail term and lie detector tests as part of licence restrictions for those who are released .  Supposedly, those who refused would be prevented from leaving prison and anyone refusing a test after release would be returned to jail.  (Serious sex offenders on licence already have such compulsory tests).  This is to help police and probation officers in their monitoring   Polygraphs (the lie-detector tests) remain inadmissible in UK courts but their use within the probation service for monitoring offenders is increasing.  Justin Russell, the chief inspector of probation alluded to a lack of “professional curiosity” among inexperienced probation officers who were unable to spot signs of “false compliance” – an industry term for offenders who cooperate with their licence terms in an attempt to conceal their true intentions.  The critiques of the lie-detector tests relate mostly to their reliability (admittedly around 60%) , but importantly  to erosion of freedoms.  Christine Jardine, home affairs spokeswoman for the Liberal Democrats, said judges were already able to lock up terrorists for life – while polygraphs were “not accurate or reliable enough” for such critical decisions.  She added: “We will continue to oppose authoritarian laws that do little to make us safer, but a lot to undermine essential British freedoms.”

2. Possessing terror propaganda

The second case relates to what is deemed criminal in prosecutions.   On 14th January 2020, to toughen up the anti-terror laws, the Home Office proposed a new offence of ‘possessing terrorist propaganda that glorifies or encourages extremism’.   This was in response to the Prevention of Future Deaths report by Mark Lucraft concerning last year’s inquests into the eight people killed in 2017 London Bridge attack. A police raid on the ringleader Khuram Butt had uncovered ISIS propaganda on his phone and laptop about martyrdom and suicide missions.  No charges were brought, as the legislation currently only forbids distribution; possession is criminal only if the material is useful in commission of a terrorist act.   Jonathan Hall, QC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, mused on Twitter whether propaganda was ‘too slippery a term’ His view was that  case could be made for criminality if it was possession of the most violent forms – such as torture and beheadings.   This would be similar to possession of child sex abuse images.

Objections to possession being a criminal offence are again about freedom of thought and expression – and remind us of the historical case of a student (and a member of staff) at one university being arrested for having violent extremist  literature on their computers (which was part of their research into the groups).   But that was one of the many errors made under the Prevent strategy around ‘duty’, rather than an assumed legal infringement.  Everything comes down to motive:  is possession in order to share, in order to justify an action, in order to prepare?  When does the pre-criminal space become the criminal one?

3. Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace

The third perhaps more sinister extension of surveillance in the “pre-criminal” space was the attempt by Counter Terror police in the South East to extend the Prevent duty to being watchful about membership of organisations such as Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace.  The barmy guidance took the phrasing straight out of the Prevent playbook, transmuting the adherents to violent extremist ideology into ‘people who speak in strong or emotive terms about environmental issues like climate change, ecology, species extinction, fracking, expansion or pollution’ and ‘writing environmentally themed graffiti’.  Young, school aged strikers were singled out.

The guidance was withdrawn, but not for around 2 months, with teachers and other authorities meanwhile left bewildered or angered by yet another set of vigilance demands.  Objections to this extension of ‘safeguarding’ are numerous.  One obvious one is that we want young people to be active citizens – in fact we may want them to channel a sense of mission into areas like the climate emergency rather than into dangerous nationalism or any harmful religious ideology.  By all means discuss what constitutes NVDA (non-violent direct action), and when this might become a criminal offence, but schools should not enter the pre-criminal space by labelling emotive and impassioned speakers as potential threats to our national safety.  (The education sector is already the greatest single source of referrals to Prevent.)

The clue to the extension of concern is the fear of anarchy and upset to the status quo: the guidance talked in terms of “anti-establishment philosophy that seeks system change underlies its activism; the group attracts to its events school-age children and adults unlikely to be aware of this.”   I would have thought they were very aware:  that is the point.  They do want the big systemic changes to the way we manage our world.  But unlike ISIS or white supremacist groups, XR does not seek to harm or exterminate those who disagree; it is not a cult in that sense.  To lump together all protest movements under the same umbrella is profoundly un-educational.

Two areas of clarity are needed:

What’s criminal and what’s not?

The first is the need is for clarity and knowledge on what is legally criminal and what is not.  Guidance to teachers and other front-line workers needs not a whole list of what are seen as potentially problematic organisations (ref with what the police line is on twitter-ZL), but clarity on which are legally proscribed and which not.  From government guidance (ref) there are 75 internationally proscribed groups under the Terrorism Act 2000 and 14 organisations in Northern Ireland proscribed under previous legislation.  In UK there are only 3 far right groups (National Action and its spin-offs Scottish Dawn and NS131) which are proscribed and there are calls for more far-right groups in UK to be proscribed (e.g. Generation Identity, which spreads white genocide ideology).  But teachers may need updating on these and on the reasons for proscription.

Definitions – a slippery slope?

The second is the need for a definition of extremism under the Prevent duty always to be prefaced as violent extremism (not opposition to British values etc).  The concern is whether young people are being drawn directly into violence and criminality, not into vaguely defined extremism thought.  Although it may change, criminality can be defined.  The Commission for Countering Extremism has in fact called for the government to adopt a proposed definition of “hateful extremism” in order to standardise efforts across different ideologies while protecting freedom of speech.  Yet even this strays into the grey area of what constitutes hate and hate speech – and its effects – and who decides.  And will possession of hate literature become criminal?


The Prevent strategy has been in place since 2006 and these types of mistakes around labelling continue to occur causing public unease and mistrust.

  • Should we be having such discussions only after the media highlights these types of cases?
  • When should the alarm bells around vigilance ring, and who rings them? 
  • What freedoms might be eroded by extended powers of surveillance?
  • And who decides where that line is drawn?

In the end, the discussion is always about balance and making sure that rights such as to peaceful protests are absolutely respected and not clouded by unhelpful advice blurring the legal and illegal for short term, political expediency.  Only then, will the public discourse around trust and accountability within the extremism arena be won over.

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