When Suella Braverman described the hundreds of thousands-strong demonstrations calling for a ceasefire in Palestine as “hate marches” and hinted at yet more new anti-protest legislation, it wasn’t just the latest brash soundbite from a particularly authoritarian home secretary, but the result of the advice she’s getting from people who you might expect to have a more nuanced view.
The government’s commissioner for countering extremism is Robin Simcox. Apparently, he is a leading expert on the subject rather than some kind of headbanging demagogue. Nonetheless, writing for the Times on 19 October, Simcox wrote in no uncertain terms what he thought about the hundreds of thousands who marched to demand Israel end its occupation and apartheid rule over Palestine: “They are successfully exploiting one of our proudest British values, freedom of expression, to pursue a shameful extremist agenda, the normalisation and promotion of antisemitism.”
By the time of the march, Israel had bombed civilians, used white phosphorus, announced a “total” blockade of the Gaza Strip and demanded that the entire population of northern Gaza move south within 24 hours. Still, everyone on the march was pursuing a “shameful extremist agenda”, according to the government’s top expert on extremism.
When Simcox appeared for his first broadcast interview on 18 October on BBC Newsnight, Diplomatic editor Mark Urban did not challenge him on his “alarm” at the number of people protesting in the streets, but instead asked: “Do these events provide you with the necessary impetus to get through more doors and provide a more active and effective government counter-extremism policy?” Don’t give him any ideas, Mark.
Urban introduced Simcox as, “among those trying to strike a balance between freedom of speech and thwarting hate”. That’s one way to describe him. Before his appointment as the government’s counter-extremism advisor in March 2021, Simcox spent his time defending indefinite detention in Guantanamo Bay while working for hawkish, neo-con thinktanks the Henry Jackson Society and the Heritage Foundation.
The Heritage Foundation has been criticised for hosting a number of Islamophobes, but that’s no problem, because Islamophobia is “a slippery concept” anyway, Simcox wrote for the think-tank in 2019, which the left uses as a “cynical ploy” to shut down debate.
Simcox also urged the Conservative party under Boris “Letterboxes” Johnson to “push back” on questions of Islamophobia in 2019, and encouraged the party to be its own judge, saying it should only hold a review on the subject if it “truly feels it has a case to answer”.
At the same time, and with the Spycops inquiry rolling slowly on in the background, he urged “monitoring” of the “far left”. “The presence of Unite Against Fascism on the streets is normally a pretty good indicator that a brawl is imminent”, he wrote of the group which tends to organise police-sanctioned, placard-waving opposition to far-right racist events.
A particular concern for Simcox is migration. In a 2018 research paper for the Heritage Foundation, he argued for “public recognition by key European leaders that taking in a large number of refugees from Islamist conflict zones has increased the terror threat.” He doesn’t mention how these “conflict zones” came to be. Best not to think about that when your employer was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the War on Terror, I suppose.
In his Times article, Simcox wrote that the emergence of pro-Palestine protests are “the price that Britain and other Western European countries are paying for a three-decade-long failed policy mix of mass migration and multiculturalism.”
This has echoes of Braverman’s extremely loud dog-whistle speech about failed multiculturalism in Washington in September. Her comments were praised by Mark Collett, the Nazi-sympathising leader of fascist party Patriotic Alternative, who said that, “Suella Braverman has basically admitted multiculturalism has failed and that mass immigration is a threat to the west. This is a good thing.” Collett’s party was on the radar of Simcox’s predecessor for “hateful extremism”. Here he was lauding Simcox’s boss, who gets to legislate over what counts as acceptable protest.
As rightwing politicians and commentators abandon their free-speech-loving credentials to claim that all support for Palestinians or calls for a ceasefire are the work of racists, extremists and outsiders, it’s reassuring that they’re doing it with expert backing.
Simon Childs is a commissioning editor and reporter for Novara Media.