In the aftermath of the EU referendum, after Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster had been rolled up and Vote Leave’s red bus quietly parked out of sight, and the country was divided on the merits of Brexit, EU nationals, Muslims, and people of colour began to report one common thing – an increase in hate crime.
A man on a Manchester tram was told to “get back to Africa”. A British Asian mother and her two children were told: “Today is the day we get rid of the likes of you!” by a man who then spat at her. A xenophobic obscenity was left on a Polish community centre door.
These attacks were reported days after Brexit. At which point, politicians who backed the Leave campaign were suddenly extremely keen to point out how much more efficient the police had got at recording hate crime (with much of these efficiencies occurring in June 2016). Not only that, but they began to blame journalists for “hamming up hate crime”.
Shortly after the vote, then-Ukip leader Farage performed a rhetorical wriggle later perfected by Donald Trump over Charlottesville by declaring “the abuse since the Brexit result is going both ways”. When confronted with police reports about a rise in racist abuse, Farage said: “Perhaps they have, perhaps they haven’t. I don’t know.”
In September 2016, Daniel Hannan, a prominent Conservative Brexiteer, accused the media of “jumping on” cases of people being attacked, and that drawing a connection between voting to leave the EU and hate crimes was an “insult”. It was not just on the right. Labour’s Gisela Stuart told the New Statesman that journalists were hamming up hate crime and “having decided that this is what’s happening, that’s what they go out and look for”.
This narrative had a simple purpose – to demolish the idea that far-right extremism might have played any part in the Brexit vote. To deny that Brexit campaigners used dog whistle tactics playing to Islamophobia and xenophobia rather than “democracy” and “constitutional rights”. To absolve politicians of using fear of “outsiders” to boost the Brexit vote from any responsibility for the men who now felt free to spit at a mother and her children on the street.
The figures give the lie to that narrative. Police reports have consistently shown a rise in hate crime, and the latest Home Office figures for England and Wales hammer that home. Recorded hate crime offences were up 29 per cent in 2016-17 on the previous year, which the report says is down to “a genuine rise in hate crime” as well as better reporting. The report goes on to state:
The EU referendum campaign began on Friday 15 April 2016, with the result announced on Friday 24 June, the day after the referendum. Around this time there was a clear spike in hate crime… Anecdotal evidence suggests that there was an increase in these types of offences around the time of the EU Referendum.
Offences began to rise in April 2016 (when the EU referendum campaign started), and reached a peak in July 2016, when hate crime offences were 44 per cent higher than the same month in 2015. While they declined in August, they remained “at a higher level than prior to the EU referendum”.
Perhaps this is in part because of the implicit message emanating from Westminster. So long as the government refuses to grant EU citizens the right to remain, it sends a not-so-subtle message to the general public that they are suspect. So long as it does not pursue far-right extremism with the same energy as it applies to the Islamist kind, it allows violent xenophobia to spread. The fact is, Brexit caused a rise in hate crimes, and the Brexit politicians who fuelled it could do something to reduce it.