682 British Children have been investigated and referred to a UK Government counter-terrorism programme over alleged “far right” activity, according to Sky News:

Home Office figures show a dramatic rise in the number of under-18s referred to the government’s counter-terrorism programme Channel over concerns about their possible involvement with the far-right.

A total of 682 children were referred for this reason in 2017-18, compared with 131 in 2014-15 – a more than five-fold increase, according to figures obtained through a freedom of information request.

The total for 2017-18 includes 24 children under the age of 10.

On what possible basis, you might ask, could the police intervene with the political views of a child under the age of ten?

Well, that’s simple: video games:

Mr Bromage said the child-specific content being used by the far-right to target youngsters online included shoot ’em up video games, memes and videos.

The nine-year-old boy had been recruited by his older brother who showed his younger sibling “extreme neo-Nazi video games,” he added.

What is an extreme neo-Nazi video game? Well, we are not told. There are lots of games out there where you can play as a German soldier or commander in World War Two – from Panzer Corps and Hearts of Iron at the strategy game level, to Call of Duty and Hell Let Loose in the First Person Shooter genre.

But as an avid gamer myself, it is hard to think of any game that might reasonably be described as “neo-nazi”. Are they arresting children for playing as Rommel during the battle of El-Alamein? One hopes not, but if these games are so dangerous, it might be an idea to identify them, so that parents could prevent children from playing them, right?

And if the games are not being named, why might that be? Could it be, for example, that Sky News is not especially confident it would win a libel suit from the maker of a computer game who’s just had his product denounced as “far right”?

In fact, the whole report by Sky is missing a range of information that you might expect to be important. For example: What are the signs that a young person has become radicalised by the far right? What basis do the police use for intervening?

Is it, for example, a child who uses racist language at school? Because that would seem to be a disciplinary matter for the schools, long before it’s a policing issue.

Or is it the expression of political opinions? If a fourteen year old expresses, for example, his or her opposition to unrestricted immigration, is that enough to earn a referral to a counter-extremism programme?

Some people will dismiss those questions as irrelevant, but they’re actually the most relevant questions, for good civic reasons, and from a liberal point of view.

For one thing, extremism itself is not, and should not, be illegal. To take an example from a completely different form of extremism, there is no reason that it should be illegal to be staunchly anti-American and express your support for an extremist version of Islam. That’s a set of views. The crime is when you act on those views – or any other views – to perpetrate a crime.

It’s perfectly possible to hold extreme views on nearly any subject – one might be an extreme left winger who favours the nationalisation of banks, for example – and not be violent.

Extremism itself, in other words, is not the crime. The crime is, well, crime.

The other reason we should know what the criteria are, from a purely civic point of view, is that if society is to deem certain views and ideas worthy of intervention, then we should all know what they are so that we can alert the authorities if we encounter them ourselves.

At what point, for example, do you refer your own child to counter-extremism programmes? Is it when they drape the national flag from their bedroom window? Is it when they start reading Mein Kampf? Is it when they start hanging around with the wrong sort?

What is the basis for intervention?

Because without knowing those things, and not having a publicly established standard and set of rules for when a child’s thoughts are deemed to be dangerous, the whole thing becomes arbitrary, and prone to panicked interventions by police officers and teachers.

And that, more than anything else, might explain the dramatic increase in referrals that Sky News is so worried about.