A new report claims social cohesion and democracy are being eroded by ‘conspiracy theories, extremism, and harassment and censorship’ in modern day Britain.

Dame Sara Khan’s review into social cohesion and democratic resilience called for urgent action from the Government to address these ‘evolving threats’.
The Review also evidences how these threats are playing out against a backdrop of disillusionment with democracy where data indicates decreasing trust in Parliament, the government, political parties and the press. 
Just as ‘terrorism and cyber-security are met with robust responses and monitoring’, Dame Sara Khan urges the Government to recognise social cohesion and the resilience of our democracy as deserving of similar long-term attention and decisive action. 

In April 2021, the government appointed Dame Sara Khan to carry out an ‘independent review’ into social cohesion and resilience in England. 

She was tasked with examining the negative impact that extremism and other divisive activity was having in local communities and on victims. 

While gathering evidence for this review, the Reviewer met over 500 people at nearly 180 meetings and roundtables. 

This included 40 meetings with officials from government departments and agencies, 30 meetings with councillors and local authorities, 46 meetings with various civil society groups and victims, and 14 meetings with academics.

Dame Sara Khan said: “Britain’s most precious asset is our diverse and cohesive democracy – but how we preserve these ideals is fast becoming one of the most important questions of our time. 
“My Review sheds light on the lack of capability, strategy and response to the slow and insidious erosion of our democratic rights and freedoms by a diverse range of actors. 
“I am calling on the Government to commit to a new strategic approach to help protect and preserve our democratic way of life – while also harnessing the many economic, political and social benefits social cohesion can bring to our country.” 

Calling for an overhaul in the Government’s approach, the Review’s fifteen recommendations include:  
The establishment of an independent, impartial Office for Social Cohesion and Democratic Resilience (OSCDR). A five-year Social Cohesion and Democratic Resilience Strategy (SCDR) and Action Plan. And the creation of a cross-Whitehall Cohesion Response Unit to respond to early tensions and live flashpoint incidents in a quicker and effective manner. 

The review says it evidences the ‘horrifying testimonies of many victims’.  

The review ‘identifies a dangerous climate of censorship due to widespread threatening, intimidating, and abusive FRH (Freedom-restricting harassment) which has left Britons self-censoring in their personal and professional lives’. 

The Review evidences what it calls the horrifying testimonies of many victims. It highlights the Religious Studies teacher in Batley who displayed a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad in a Religious Education lesson. 

The report says: ‘Despite the lesson being used in previous years, he was forced into hiding with his partner and children fearing for his life’.  The Review argues that he – and many other victims of FRH – are often failed by local agencies.  
Key findings on freedom-restricting harassment through polling of a sample of 1279 respondents aged 16+ in the UK found: 

•    76% of the public having refrained from expressing their personal views in public through fear of receiving freedom-restricting harassment 
•    47% of the public have witnessed others experiencing FRH which has resulted in them self-censoring 
•    60% of the public believe the problem is worse than five years ago 
•    44% of the public witness this form of harassment online - and 44% in person 
•    27% of the public having experienced life-altering harassment has resulted in life changing events including taking additional security measures and moving house
On the local level, the Review urges the Government to assist local authorities as evidence shows councils desperately require support and lack the capability and expertise to effectively respond to issues such as disinformation, conspiracy theories and ever-evolving extremist tactics. 

The report says: “Extremist and other malign actors capitalise on the tensions and discontent caused by these issues, in an attempt to breed further division, distrust and disillusionment. 

“By exploiting people’s grievances and resentment towards the perceived failure of our country to deliver for them, while also promoting a narrative that rejects pluralism and our shared democratic values, they attempt to stoke further division and hostility in our society.”

“These challenges are having a profound impact on social cohesion. If not addressed adequately, they have the potential to undermine the social fabric of our country. Unlike acute high-risk threats such as terrorism or other national security concerns, many of these cohesion threats are chronic, insidious and sit below the radar where they are not assessed, measured or even fully understood. 

“The Reviewer believes that without a strategic approach to social cohesion, we will witness a slow erosion of the democratic rights and freedoms that are the bedrock of our nation. Social cohesion is not just about protecting the democratic norms of our country. It has wide reaching benefits for society as a whole. 

“From helping achieve sustainable economic growth, to reducing the threat of terrorism and hate crime, increasing societal resilience to shocks such as pandemics, improving public health, increasing volunteering and strengthening communities, social cohesion benefits a wide range of adjacent policy areas. 

“Social cohesion investment to improve long-term socio-economic conditions and social capital is also essential for the sustainable regeneration of areas that have fallen behind. This is key to achieving the goals of the Levelling Up agenda. Joining up social cohesion policy with the Levelling Up missions provides a vital opportunity to not only boost cohesion, but to ensure the long-term success of regional regeneration. 

“Too often, cohesion policy has not been given the attention it deserves by government, despite the growing body of evidence demonstrating its social and economic importance. Indeed, the wide-ranging benefits of improving social cohesion have the potential to vastly outweigh any cost of initial investment. 

“Alternatively, a failure to harness the benefits of cohesion will result in society losing out on long-term economic, policy and social advantages that will strengthen our country. Conversely, the current winds of extremism, polarisation and democratic disruption combined with social and economic issues may cause even more unrest.”

The review admits previous cohesion reports have identified a range of other factors that are important to social cohesion. 

It says: “These include the importance of quality housing, deprivation, encouraging social mixing and preventing ethnic segregation, immigration and the importance of new migrants learning the English language, etc. 

“While all these issues are important and some of these issues are touched on in this Review, we have chosen not to simply repeat what many of these previous reports have already stated. It would not be possible to do justice to all these complex issues in the limited time available. Arguably, some of these issues could merit a review in themselves. 

“Furthermore, as the terms of reference indicate, this Review is examining contemporary threats to social cohesion and what more should be done to counter them. 

“Since the last review by Dame Louise Casey in 2016, there have been new and evolving challenges as outlined in the introduction including rapid political and government change following the EU Referendum, the Covid pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis. 

“In addition, this Review is not about ‘integration’ per se, which is a different but related concept to social cohesion, as we shall explore.

“While there is inevitably some overlap, integration focuses on the ability of newcomers to successfully join and contribute to our society, with an understanding of the norms and laws, rights and responsibilities that are placed on them as members of our society.”

In January 2018, Sara was appointed the first Counter-Extremism Commissioner by the Home Secretary to lead the Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE). 

Tasked with carry out a strategic assessment of extremism across England and Wales and reviewing the government’s 2015 Counter-Extremism Strategy, her published reports include “Challenging Hateful Extremism 2019,” “How hateful extremists are exploiting the COVID-19 Pandemic 2020”. 

She also undertook a legal review on extremism legislation which resulted in the 2021 publication of the report “Operating with Impunity”.   

Before being appointed Counter-Extremism Commissioner, Sara was director of Inspire, an organisation she co-founded in 2008 to challenge gender inequality and Islamist extremism. In 2016 she co-authored the book ‘The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism’.