A senior police chief has warned that the UK risks drifting towards a police state as free speech is eroded in the fight against terrorism.
Sir Peter Fahy, chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, said it was people like himself who were having to make decisions on what is considered acceptable language.
And he said that this should be changed so that politics, academics and civil society made the decision on what is to be protected as free speech and what counts as extremism.
Sir Peter said he supported the new counter terrorism measures which were unveiled last week by the government, but he said that if deciding where the line on extremists fell to people in the industry like himself there was a risk the country would be considerably less liberal.
Speaking to the Guardian, he said “If these issues [defining extremism] are left to securocrats then there is a danger of a drift to a police state,”
“I am a securocrat, it’s people like me, in the security services, people with a narrow responsibility for counter-terrorism. It is better for that to be defined by winder society and not securocrats.”
The measures from the Home Office included banning alleged extremist speakers from colleges and universities. But Fahy said that it was police officers who were having to make the decision on whether something was against the law or just expressing their personal views.
“There is a danger of us being turned into a thought police,” he said. “This securocrat says we do not want to be in the space of policing thought or police defining what is extremism.”
He used the example of protests in the City during the summer outside a beauty store which sold Israeli products. The shop complained after both sides gathered outside the store and it was left for police to intervene and decide there and then what was extremist.
“It is better for others in society to have that debate and not to have public order commanders decide that on the street, outside a shop.”
But he warned universities and colleges that they also needed to work harder to identify extremists on campus to stop police having to make the decision.
“If schools and universities do not step up, it leaves a gap where police are asked to intervene” he said. “Institutions should have policies in place identifying who is vulnerable, to keep the police out of schools and education.”
Sir Peter added, “The police service does not want to be in school or on university campuses controlling thought, but the best way to avoid this is for such institutions to have procedures to know the messages which are being promoted and for student bodies to have policies on whether preaching hatred towards homosexuality, allowing segregated meetings or advocating violent action overseas is acceptable or not.”
The crack down on free speech and civil liberties was ramped up following the attacks on the twin towers in New York by Tony Blair and his government.
Since then there have been debates on where the balance lies between keeping the public safe from potential terrorists and keeping them safe from a dictatorial state.