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David Cameron sends a message to Westminster and Whitehall: treat extremists like racists. Now he must make it happen.

by Paul Goodman

CAMERON-DAVID-LEEDS David Cameron's security speech today does everything that Charles Moore suggested it might and I hoped it would.  It's the most significant pronouncement on "Islamist extremism" - as the Prime Minister starkly labels it - from a British politician since 7/7.  This isn't because it makes new policy.  Every major point in it was agreed before the last election, and has been made by Ministers since May.  Rather, it's because it breaks cultural ground.  Cameron wants to make extremism as unacceptable as racism: indeed, he explicitly compares that claimed in the name of Islam with that asserted in the name of race.

He asks: "Would you allow the far right groups a share of public funds if they promise to lure young white men away from fascist terrorism?"  There's a sharp point to the question.  As Moore notes again today, the top ranks of the political parties, the security services, the civil service and the police divide to give two incompatible answers.  One is that the bad must be used as the enemy of the worst: that non-violent Islamists can be manipulated by the state to control violent ones.  To develop Cameron's own figure of speech, this is like trying to privilege Nick Griffin with government patronage and taxpayers' money to rein in Column 88.

It's evident that the Prime Minister has come to see this view as simply fuelling a fire, and plainly dismisses it as "nonsense".  "Frankly," he says, "we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism" - a phrase that challenges his Coalition partners to champion the virtues which helped to shape their party. "A passively tolerant society says to its citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone," he says.  "It stands neutral between different values.  A genuinely liberal country does much more. It believes in certain values and actively promotes them."  He then names them.

"Freedom of speech.  Freedom of worship.  Democracy.  The rule of law.  Equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality.  It says to its citizens: this is what defines us as a society.  To belong here is to believe in these things.  Each of us in our own countries must be unambiguous and hard-nosed about this defence of our liberty...I also believe we should encourage meaningful and active participation in society, by shifting the balance of power, away from the state and to people...It's that identity - that feeling of belonging in our countries that is the key to achieving true cohesion."

If people "fail these tests", he says, "the presumption should be not to engage with organisations.  No public money. No sharing of platforms with Ministers at home.  At the same time, we must stop these groups from reaching people in publicly funded institutions – like universities and prisons".  Today's papers tend to treat the speech as a message to British Muslims, though it's meticulously careful not to muddle religion with ideology.  But this is to miss its real purpose: it is, more pointedly, a challenge to Westminster and, in particular, Whitehall.

And with reason.  Sayeeda Warsi let her unhappiness be known after she was barred from sharing a platform with extremists.  Conservative MPs called for Charles Farr, the Director of Security and Counter-Terrorism, to be fired after he sought to ensure the entry to Britain of a hate preacher.  Some Conservative MPs may still be willing to let Engage serve as the secretariat of a Parliamentary enquiry into Islamophobia.  Cameron's speech is in one sense rage against the machine, or parts of it, at any rate.  But it's easy to kick the apparatus of government; it's much harder to make it work as required - to which task the Prime Minister must now turn.


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