Defining Extremism

‘Domestic extremism’ is a scary term that is often used in the same context as ‘violent extremism’ or even ‘terrorism’ asnd yet this is a label that the police have regularly attached to all kinds of political protest and campaigning.

There is no clear working definition of what ‘domestic extremism’ means, let alone a legally binding set of criteria. Over the years the police have made use of a number of definitions, all of them extremely vague and broad. This is why Netpol has repeatedly argued that the term “domestic extremist” means pretty much whatever the police want it to mean.

A current definition of “domestic extremism” appears on the website of MI5, alongside definitions of terrorism. This states that the term “mainly refers” to “individuals or groups that carry out criminal acts in pursuit of a larger agenda”. Such groups, it continues, “may seek to change legislation or influence domestic policy and try to achieve this outside of the normal democratic process”.

The definition is broad and ambiguous. It is far from clear what is meant by ‘outside the normal democratic process’. European human rights case law makes it clear that public protest, including ‘direct action’ protest, forms an essential part of the ‘normal democratic process’, and should on that basis be protected by the state. Only protests in which the organisers or participants intend to cause harm to others would fall outside of this protection.

The definition here, however, does not confine ‘domestic extremism’ to those groups who intend to change legislation or domestic policy by violent means.

Instead, the definition focuses on ‘criminal acts’. It does not, however, differentiate between civil disobedience commonly associated with protest (such as obstructing the highway and trespass) and more serious forms of criminality (such as hate crime).

It encompasses, therefore, all campaigns and protest movements whose actions have, at any point in time, been unlawful. It is worth remembering that those who have used unlawful acts ‘in pursuit of a larger agenda’ have included, over the years, the suffragette movement (who frequently damaged property); the trade union movement (historically, the use of strikes and industrial action was often unlawful); and various equality campaigns. Members of the movement for lesbian and gay rights, for example, once invaded the BBC and abseiled into the House of Commons.

Far from being ‘extremists’, these are people who fought for – and achieved – the rights we often now take for granted.

In 2014, under pressure to narrow the scope of domestic extremism, the Metropolitan Police announced that they would adopt new working definition. This definition, on the face of it, confined ‘domestic extremism’ to groups with the intent to commit serious criminality.

“Domestic Extremism relates to the activity of groups or individuals who commit or plan serious criminal activity motivated by a political or ideological viewpoint”

National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit, Metropolitan Police, 2014

 As Netpol pointed out at the time, however, this definition is not quite as narrow as it appears. There are a number of ways in which ‘serious crime’ is defined in law the police have declined to clarify how they are interpreting the term. The most likely definition is that laid out by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

This states at section 81(3) that there are two complementary tests and that criminal acts will be treated as ‘serious’ if they meet either of these tests.:

  • that the offence or one of the offences that is or would be constituted by the conduct is an offence for which a person who has attained the age of twenty-one and has no previous convictions could reasonably be expected to be sentenced to imprisonment for a term of three years or more;
  • that the conduct involves the use of violence, results in substantial financial gain or is conduct by a large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose.

On this basis, serious crime includes any conduct ‘by a large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose’. This takes us back to square one – although the police in 2014 appeared to narrow the definition, in reality, that was not the case.

The current definition in use by the Metropolitan police is not known – there is no information available either on the Metropolitan Police website, or on that of the National Police Chiefs Council (formerly ACPO).

It would seem unlikely, however, that they would adopt a definition that was significantly different from that used by the security services.

We note that the police published the definition shown here in 2010. We are not convinced that, since that time, the police have taken any real action to limit the scope of ‘domestic extremism’.

The term is still defined in such a broad and ambiguous way that it can mean, in any given case, whatever the police want it to mean.

The implications for individual protesters are stark. This definition is used to categorise entire campaigns and protest movements as ‘domestic extremist’.

This means that anyone associated with such a campaign, even if they personally have never committed any kind of unlawful activity, may still themselves be labelled as a ‘domestic extremist’. 

What is domestic extremism?

The vast majority of campaigners protest peacefully and legally but a small number of activists seek to further their cause by committing criminal acts.

The term domestic extremist is generally used to describe the activity of those individuals or groups who carry out illegal acts of direct action to further their protest campaign.

Domestic extremists usually seek to prevent something from happening to change legislation or domestic policy, but attempt to do so outside the normal democratic process.

Domestic extremism is commonly associated with ‘single issue’ protests, such as animal rights, environmentalism, anti-globalisation or anti-GM crops.

Crime and public disorder linked to extreme left wing or right wing political campaigns is also considered domestic extremism.

NCDE have categorised domestic extremism into five areas:

  • Animal rights
  • Environmental
  • Extreme right wing
  • Extreme left wing
  • Emerging trends

NCDE definition of “domestic extremism”, 2010