The announcement by prime minister David Cameron today that a new counter-extremism bill is to form part of the Queen’s Speech on 27 May, providing the authorities with new powers to tackle terrorism, confirms that, as early as the first week of his new government, all pretence at inspiring and engaging has been set aside in favour of legislating and coercing.
When home secretary Theresa May told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that she wanted to ‘bring people together to ensure we are living together as one society’, she omitted to say that this ‘bringing together’ is to be made mandatory, with severe penalties for those who will not comply with what the authorities define as British values.
The window for free speech has now been firmly shut just a few months after so many political leaders walked in supposed solidarity for murdered cartoonists in France. Yet, it was only just over 200 years ago that the very British poet William Wordsworth, observing the spirit of liberty that had just been unleashed in France, exclaimed: ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!’
Today, we face the twilight of freedom, and to be young is to be cowed and scrutinised, as the government implicitly reveals that it has given up on trying to understand the reasons why growing numbers of youths are disengaged from society, leading at the margins to the vexatious violence of a small minority. Interception and incarceration are to be the bold new vision for the future of Britain.
Most strikingly of all, the BBC reports that May will tell the National Security Council that the government will empower institutions to ‘challenge bigotry and ignorance’. Lest we forget, it was only five years ago that the previous PM, Gordon Brown, castigated a traditional Labour voter as a bigot. And, presumably, old-fashioned Church of England adherents opposed to gay marriage on principled religious grounds will also face the need to be re-programmed under Cameron’s new regime, just as much as the many who don’t know their Sunni from their Shia?