What is an extremist? This is an important question in Britain today as the Conservative-led government of David Cameron clamps down on jihadist preachers and right-wing groups who stir up hate and incite violence. If you are doing that sort of thing the authorities will very soon be able to slap an “Extremism Disruption Order” (EDO) on you, restricting your freedom. Putting it positively, the new laws are intended to protect “British values”.
Just who else might be deemed a serious threat to these values has been unclear, but last week a Conservative MP attempted to clarify the issue for a constituent who wrote to him, asking if it was true that EDOs could be used to silence people with traditional views about marriage.
No, no, Mark Spencer (pictured) replied:
“I believe that everybody in society has a right to free speech and to express their views without fear of persecution. The EDOs will not serve to limit but rather to guarantee it: it is those who seek to stop other people expressing their beliefs who will be targeted.”
Taking the hypothetical case of a teacher who does not agree with the concept of same-sex marriage he reassured the letter writer that “teachers will still be completely free to express their understanding of the term ‘marriage’, and their moral opposition to its use in some situations, without breaking the new laws.”
But then Spencer added: “The EDOs in this case would apply in situations where a teacher was specially teaching that gay marriage was wrong.”
In other words if a teacher goes beyond saying to a class, “Well, er, I don’t agree with it,” and tells them, “Marriage can only be between a man and a woman,” that teacher is an extremist and should be hauled before a judge to answer for it.
This could well be the plight of a teacher in a Catholic school which, by definition, would be obliged to teach the Church’s doctrine on marriage if it was going to say anything on the subject at all.
After The Telegraph catapulted Spencer from obscurity to notoriety with the headline, “MP: use anti-terror powers on Christian teachers who say gay marriage is ‘wrong’”, he insisted on his blog that he was “in fact supporting freedom of opinion and free speech!
“What I said was that teachers should not teach that gay marriage is wrong as if that is a fact, when in reality there are a number of different views on it. It’s not right to force those views on to our children when they or their parents may have a different opinion. We should teach all of the viewpoints fairly.
“Everyone has a right to say what they feel, but not to teach it to children as if it was a fact without sharing the alternatives.”
One should not make too much of a single politician’s ill considered idea of what constitutes extremism, but Spencer certainly will not be the only person in Britain to insist that “all of the viewpoints” about marriage (and these extend beyond “gay marriage”) should be treated as equal in public life.
Nor, whether he meant it or not, will he be the only one to think of teaching about marriage as the union of a man and a woman under the same heading as the anti-Western fulminations of some radical imam.