RISHI Sunak’s plans to treat those who “vilify” Britain as extremists could criminalise supporters of Scottish and Welsh independence, a counter-terrorism expert has warned.

The former chancellor has announced he intends to change the definition of extremism if elected as Tory leader, to allow people with “an extreme hatred of Britain” to be put through the anti-terrorism Prevent programme.

The proposals have sparked a huge backlash, with human rights organisations warning it will further clamp down on “fundamental rights and freedom of expression” and politicians describing it as a “new low” for the Tory leadership contest.

According to a report in the Telegraph newspaper, sources in the Sunak camp said he believed “extremists did not just want to attack the UK’s values but also the country’s very existence.”

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Dr Maria Norris, assistant professor in international relations at Coventry University, told The National this was an attack on independence campaigners.

“That is very, very telling as those who are arguing for and campaigning for Scottish independence or Welsh independence or Irish reunification, they do want the United Kingdom to stop existing as it currently is,” she said.

“So is this going to be a form of extremism as well?”

She added: “I think it is not a coincidence this is the language that is being used – they talk about extremists attacking the UK as a country, of its very existence as a country.

“I have been researching UK counter-terrorism for decades, I am an expert on terrorism and extremism and this is not something you see from Islamic terrorism.

“They are not attacking the UK’s right to exist or anything like that, the whole thing about attacking the country’s very existence - that is about separatism and independence, so it is a very deliberate inclusion.

“It is an attack, really, on those that are campaigning for independence.”

Sunak’s campaign has insisted the policy would not see people critical of UK Government policy referred for deradicalisation.

But Norris, whose work focuses on far-right extremism, UK-counter terrorism and white nationalism, said the definition of “extreme hatred of Britain” would be “inherently subjective”.

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She raised concerns it is part of a “systematic attack on dissent” from the UK Government in recent years, pointing to examples such as changes in laws around the right to protest and the scrapping of the Human Rights Act.

She added: “The Prevent strategy from the very beginning had an element of being a crackdown on dissent, specifically dissent coming from particular communities, because Prevent is an outgrowth of counter-insurgency tactics used during the Empire - which are about controlling dissent and populations that are deemed to be dissenting.

“So there is absolutely an element of that – especially when we take into account this is a government which has very much engaged in the culture war situation, where they are very quick to paint those who are for example, calling for better education regarding the Empire and slavery, as anti-Britain.”

Rishi Sunak at an event in Exeter as part of Tory leadership campaign. Picture: PASNP MP Anne McLaughlin

The Prevent strategy has been criticised by the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights and counter terrorism for its “de-facto criminalisation of children”, while a 2022 report by the People’s Review of Prevent saw it described as “ineffective, disproportionate and discriminatory”.

A spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain said Sunak’s proposals revealed that Prevent “is in essence a political football designed to appease divisive ideologues rather than combat terrorism”.

"Given how contested the government's definition of extremism is, it is hard to see who will not be covered by this,” the spokesperson said.

"The target for this new policy will not only be ordinary British Muslims, already disproportionately impacted by the Prevent duty. Everyone will be affected.

“Our fundamental civil rights, including that to freedom of expression and protest, for example, face grave risk when the state gains more power to police what we are allowed to say."

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Jun Pang, policy and campaigns officer, at human rights group Liberty, said: “We all want to live in a safe and thriving society, but Prevent is a fundamentally misconceived and oppressive policy that does not achieve this.

“It embeds discrimination against Muslims in public services, erodes carefully cultivated relationships of care and support, and fosters a culture of fear and mistrust

“For the past few years, the Government has shown itself to be consistently hostile to dissent.

“It is therefore extremely worrying to hear more of the same from a prospective candidate for Prime Minister.”

Anne McLaughlin MP, the SNP's shadow justice spokesperson, said: "These dangerous and ill-thought-out proposals from Rishi Sunak are yet another reminder of the depths to which this toxic Tory leadership race has sunk.

"Rather than pandering to right-wing Tory backbenchers and party members, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss should be more focused on the fact that people across these islands are facing the most horrendous rise in the cost of living most of us have ever seen and it’s under their watch.”

Scottish Greens justice spokesperson Maggie Chapman MSP, said: “This leadership race is the most undignified we’ve seen, with each candidate trying to outdo the other with ever more ridiculous or authoritarian schemes.

“This proposal is a new low, even for Rishi Sunak. It is a shameful, transparent and anti-democratic attempt to win over the Tory party base.

“Any government that would propose a measure like this fully deserves to be criticised and vilified.”