Is Nicky Morgan going to investigate herself for extremism?
As far as hapless Today interviews go, Nicky Morgan's was in the middle-weight category. It wasn't disasterous, but it's becoming increasingly clear that she's not clever enough to stay out of trouble forever. It was especially revealing about the hopeless muddle of the government's counter-extremism programme, not least of all because Morgan inadvertently suggested an extremism taskforce was needed to investigate her.
The education secretary was on to defend her decision to broaden the 'coasting' category for schools. It’s part of her plan to surreptitiously turn all schools into academies without having to actually announce that that's what she's doing. But she got side-tracked by a discussion on the new guidance for schools, prisons and universities to counter-extremism.
As usual, it was full of the sort of woolly thinking which typifies government efforts to tackle an ideology they do not understand. They will understand it much less once they criminalise the non-violent extremism which leads up to it and make engagement impossible. So when Morgan was asked to give an example of the kind of behaviour from a pupil which would trigger an anti-extremism intervention, she struggled. And then, out of nowhere, she found an example: homophobia.
This was an interesting example, because Morgan herself voted against gay marriage twice. Is opposition to gay marriage always homophobic? No, not really, although you could make the case. But this isn't about what's really the case. It's about what's perceived to be the case.
School children are often fond of accusing each other of being 'gay'. Is this going to be enough to call in the anti-extremism unit? Will Catholic or Jewish faith schools face daily visits from the inspectors? Will a socially conservative teacher find themselves under investigation?
Probably not. But we know the truth: when a Muslim kid calls his friend 'gay' it will be treated differently to when a white kid does it. The vague language and imprecise measures of the counter-extremism strategy will allow people's prejudice free rein.
We see this across the government's counter-terror response. Here is the definition of extremism they released yesterday:
"The vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also regard calls for the death of members of our armed forces as extremist."
Of course, this definition includes millions of people who are not extremists. The Socialist Workers party, the BNP, Platonic philosophers and religious conservatives of any faith would all be included. Chris Grayling, the former lord chancellor, was found by a court to have tried to turn legal aid into an "instrument of discrimination", which suggests that he was in "vocal and active opposition" to the rule of law. Perhaps the inspectors should knock at his door.
This definition is nonsense of the highest order. It covers everyone outside the liberal consensus, which is, ironically, a profoundly illiberal way to behave.
The broad range of thought crimes will be complimented by a highly intrusive operation from authorities. Local councils will be required to check their buildings for extremists (reds under the bed!), monitor their internet filters and check up on after-school clubs and tuition classes.
Universities will have to book speakers 14 days in advance to "allow for checks to be made". Advance notice of the event will need to be given with an outline of topics to be discussed and sight of presentations. Patronisingly, there will have to be a guarantee of an opposing viewpoint in the discussion.
The Tories are inserting government inspectors into the day-to-day life of institutions, interfering in the most harmless activities to check there are no potential terrorists lurking anywhere and stifling free speech in university in order to deal with a minor and delicate problem for which a scalpel would be more appropriate than an axe.
Excessive powers for authorities and vague descriptions of what they're looking for only ever ends one way: with discrimination, prejudice and intolerable intrusion into the private life of minorities. Will Morgan have the anti-terror inspectors called on her for an impassioned speech opposing gay marriage? Nope. Will the Muslim kid? Quite probably.