Anyone who follows anti-Establishment comedian Russell Brand on Twitter could be classed as an “extremist” under new anti-terror legislation, former business secretary Sir Vince Cable has warned.
In a wide-ranging critique of new counter-terrorism rules and guidelines that came into force for universities last month, Sir Vince said that he was concerned about how a new definition of extremism could “apply to people with a whole manner of views”.
Speaking at an event at the University of London’s Institute of Advanced Legal Studies on 27 October, the Liberal Democrat said that, under the new Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, those who “encourage…the rejecting of the democratic system” would technically be classed as “extremists” under recent legislation.
“Following Russell Brand on Twitter is [therefore] extremism as he is saying the same sort of thing,” he said.
Sir Vince, who held responsibility for universities from 2010 until losing his Twickenham parliamentary seat in May’s general election, also warned that new rules that require universities to vet external speakers to see whether they hold “extremist” views are likely to be applied zealously by institutions, thereby inhibiting free speech.
“Universities – being naturally risk-averse and cautious – will err on the side of caution and try to stop certain Islamic speakers,” said Sir Vince.
“They will then be accused of being Islamophobic and choose to ban other types of speakers…[and] pursue bland, uncontroversial debates, driving underground contentious debate that causes difficulty,” he added.
Pushing legitimate debate away from campuses was “profoundly dangerous” because controversial views could not be challenged in the same way as they can during open forums at universities, said Sir Vince, a former president of the Cambridge Union.
“I have a serious problem with action to drive underground people who are described as ‘extremists’, which could be applied to people with a whole range of views,” he said.
For instance, many of the Salafist Muslims he had met held highly “uncompromising” socially conservative views that could be construed as extreme, but they were fiercely opposed to violence, Sir Vince said.
He claimed the original intentions of the Prevent strategy were well-intentioned, but it had “morphed” into something that is “heavy-handed and prescriptive”, he said.
“Prevent started with good intentions – it was a genuine wish to deal with the roots of a problem,” he explained.
He also rejected the notion of a “conveyor belt” between non-violent extremist thought and terrorist activity, saying that there was “a lack of evidence” that one led to the other.
Sir Vince also said that the impetus for new counter-terrorism legislation had come from certain anti-terrorism thinktanks, rather than security services.
“One of the main…pressure[s] to have tougher measures comes from Muslim community groups, like the Quilliam Foundation,” he said, referring to an organisation started by ex-Muslim radicals who are now opposed to extremism.
“They believe it is their experience that should guide policy – pressure comes from there, rather than MI5 asking for more powers,” he said.