12 March 2024

Will more czars make Britain safer?


What’s the point of a ‘czar’? By this I mean independent experts appointed for a fixed term, usually part time, to provide independent advice to ministers on matters of national importance. The process, at its best, can circumvent Whitehall bureaucracy and risk aversion to make good things happen at speed. Louise Casey is a prime example, at least in her iteration as homelessness czar during the Covid pandemic, where decisive action provided emergency accommodation for rough sleepers. 

Yesterday’s newspapers revealed that the Government is after another czar, this time to tackle anti-Muslim hatred, after the first choice bailed out this weekend citing intolerable abuse from Islamists and the far right. This man is Fiyaz Mughal, founder of the Muslim counter-extremism charity Tell Mama. He is one of the bravest voices of moderate and mainstream Muslim opinion in this country. A champion of peaceful coexistence who has rightly been rewarded for his inter-faith work with an OBE. While I don’t know the specific circumstances of this withdrawal, I do know just how much intimidation he has endured from extremists for simply being a voice of moderation. 

All this is an embarrassing distraction for Michael Gove’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, who will launch their expanded definition of extremism later this week and who will be joined by whomever can be enticed to take Mughal’s place.

The Government is stuffed with czars at the moment, often labelled under different guises such as ‘envoy’ or ‘champion’ or simply ‘expert advisor’. Some czars have specific roles within the Civil Service that clash with neutrality. Other appointments, according to research by King’s College London, have happened as a consequence of a chance meeting on a train. 

That is not to say that the informality of such appointments is necessarily a bad thing. Often in Government, I found that the hiring of independent, non-party external advisors was an essential way for ministers shielded by a self-interested bureaucracy to see the tree for the woods. Nor is celebrity necessarily an impediment to appointment, just as we saw with Tony Blair’s appointment of Feargal Sharkey, lead singer for the Derry band The Undertones, as his music czar in 1996. 

Back on more familiar territory for me, we already have an antisemitism czar, John Mann, as a government champion to help publicise and deal with rocketing levels of violence and intimidation of Britain’s Jewish community. Similarly, the appointment of an anti-Muslim hatred czar would in a sense balance the books, because the organisation Mughal founded has reported a steep (if not equal) rise in attacks against Muslims. John Woodcock, who sits in the Lords as Baron Walney, is another czar who has been making an impact as he speaks out on destructive extreme left-wing behaviour every bit as inimical to British values and democratic life as its mirror image. 

These appointments are effective at providing a conduit between ministers and what’s happening at street level on issues now so serious that they forced the Prime Minister into a rare Downing Street address on extremism not two weeks ago. They marry intent with capability. Speaking truth to power is easier to achieve when your interlocutors are unencumbered by Civil Service machinery that grinds against unpalatable facts. But this week we will see an effort by ministers to update the work to counter-extremism which requires a ‘whole of Government’ response far beyond the purview of the czar.

An expanded definition of what constitutes extremism is scheduled to be announced on Thursday. The Government has determined that those who espouse values that would tend to undermine liberal democracy will no longer be afforded platforms or cash from the public purse. This might come as a surprise to ordinary people who would have hoped that to be a red line already. But time and again we find that the state’s agents are funding groups with taxpayer money who agitate for the destruction of the state.

This was starkly evident in the Shawcross review of the Prevent counter-extremism strategy which revealed officials sending public money to organisations which seek to legitimise Islamism. We are told there is a new compliance regime at the Home Office, recently rechristened as ‘not fit for purpose’, that will stop this breathtaking recklessness recurring. But there is still controversy over whether the definition will stifle legitimate free expression and whether it will be accompanied by the names of organisations that fall within its purview.

Not to do so would render this a performative exercise with no one any the wiser on the merits or otherwise of the scope of the new arrangements. To do so outside Parliamentary privilege would trigger inevitable legal challenges that the Government must be ready for. This is a ferociously difficult exercise to get right and the Government needs some credit for at least confronting it. We cannot have publicly underwritten bodies operating with impunity and creating an ‘ecosystem’ of extremist rhetoric that puts people in fear of their lives.

Ultimately, what is more important than any czar, is that the Government matches their rhetoric on tackling extremism with action. The stakes are much higher than any perceived difficulty for politicians. Events on the ground trump any embarrassment that might be felt by legislators who have been manipulated by or associated with those people and organisations deemed as harmful to democracy. Fiyaz Mughal put it well himself when he said: ‘These groups have gone under the radar because Government has never had the spine to take them on. We need to call them out to let the public see them and know them for what they are’. His contribution will be missed. 

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Professor Ian Acheson is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.