Under the Spectre of Brexit, Hate Crimes Are Again At Record Levels

Today, the Home Office published its latest data on hate crimes in England and Wales. For the third year running, the number of hate crimes are at record levels. To this extent, they have more than doubled in little more than half a decade (from 42,255 in 2012/13 to 103,379 now). Accounting for around three quarters of all offences, race hate crimes increased by 11 per cent in the past year (78,991 offences). Similarly, religious hate crimes increased by three per cent (to 8,566 offences), sexual orientation by 25 per cent (to 14,491), disability hate crimes by 14 per cent (to 8,256) and transgender identity hate crimes by 37 per cent (to 2,333). The latest data shows that around 12 per cent of all offences involved more than one motivating factor, those primarily relating to both race and religion.

Reproduced from Daily Mail 16 June 2016

While the Home Office report continues to explain the increases as being “mainly driven by improvements in crime recording by the police” such an explanation is as one-sided as it is simplistic. Without doubt, Brexit is the catalyst for these record levels, routinely and regularly affording permission to hate and by extension, permission to enact hate crime. In this respect it is no coincidence that every year since the referendum, the numbers of hate crimes have increased year on year. It is also no coincidence that as Brexit’s divisive message and ideology has become ever more embedded in society, the cumulative effect of this can be seen in record numbers being recorded at every juncture.

The first evidence of this can be traced back to the referendum itself in June 2016. In the 11 months following the referendum the number of hate crimes surged by 23 per cent. Unsurprisingly, Leave campaigners were far from prepared to accept that either the outcome of the referendum or the content of their campaign was to blame. As Tom Goodenough in The Spectator put it, “perhaps the referendum did lead to a rise in hate crime…perhaps it didn’t…the only thing that is clear is that there is little proof either way”.

Unfortunately for Goodenough and those like him, as more evidence became available so too was the ‘proof’ increasingly conclusive of how Brexit was a causal factor in the rise in hate crimes. As the graph below shows, an immediate and sudden increase in hate crime numbers being reported was evident in the days and weeks that followed the referendum. What was interesting is that the referendum appeared to widen the focus of those perpetrating hate crimes. As well as continuing to target non-whites, white Eastern Europeans were also targeted immediately after the Brexit vote.

Devine, D (2018) Hate crime did spike after the referendum — even allowing for other factors. LSE Brexit, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2018/03/19/hate-crime-did-spike-after-the-referendum-even-allowing-for-other-factors/.

Without doubt, the xenophobic nature of the rhetoric surrounding the Leave campaign fed into and duly shaped the contemporary socio-political landscape in England and Wales if not necessarily the UK more widely. In doing so, that climate has become one where bigotry, hate and violence can be seen to be ever more justified and worryingly enacted. In trying to explain this, the work of Barbara Perry offers an insight. For her, socio-political landscapes can be created that bestow ‘permission to hate’ and by consequence, permission to enact hate crime.

Largely through the ongoing predication of divisive ideologies and ideas as also political actors and mechanisms that seek to demarcate ‘us’ from ‘them’, these landscapes become receptive to the construction of various ‘Others’ that are routinely and regularly seen to be indeterminably oppositional and fearful. For Abrams and Travaglino, this is most likely to occur when people feel threatened by those same ‘Others’ especially when they are seen to negatively impact the employment prospects, health outcomes and normative ‘way of life’ of ‘us’.

There is little doubt that not only were all of these issues drawn upon during the Leave campaign but so too did the campaign’s rhetoric establish a number of oppositional and fearful ‘Others’: ‘immigrants’, ‘foreigners’ and ‘Muslims’ among others. Not only did this ratify Leave campaign arguments that halting immigration would provide the ‘solution’ but that leaving the EU would enable ‘us’ to enact that ‘solution’ thereby reducing if not minimising the perceived threat posed. In both constructing and reinforcing an ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy, the Leave campaign legitimated notions about who could — maybe who should — ‘remain’ and importantly, who could or should not. Resonating with Yuval-Davis’ concept of ‘politics of belonging’, the referendum afforded legitimacy to such notions through processes of stigmatisation, marginalisation and intolerance. For Allen and Young, this was exactly the function Leave campaigners hoped their rhetoric and subsequently the referendum would perform.

Clearly, the permission to hate afforded by Brexit is an ongoing process. This was apparent in September this year when there were two spikes in the numbers of hate crime being reported. The first, coincided with parliamentary debates during which Boris Johnson labelled the bill aiming to prevent a no-deal Brexit a ‘surrender bill’. The second, coincided with the debates that followed the reopening of Parliament after the Supreme Court ruled prorogation unlawful. Neither spike happened by chance. Inadvertently reinforcing Perry, Chief Constable Charlie Hall — National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for operations — offered an explanation why the spikes occurred. As he put it, “…sometimes the way things are said can be perceived as giving permission to people to act beyond the normal boundaries…it does have an impact on people”.

There can be no argument to suggest that he year on year increases in hate crime numbers has happened in a vacuum. Instead, they are a consequence of the contemporary socio-political landscape that has been shaped and informed by the Brexit. Not only has this socio-political landscape established a hospitable climate where permission to hate has been afforded but so too to justify and enact hate and violence. Hate crimes numbers in recent years are therefore an echo chamber of England and Wales more generally, where the demarcation, differentiation and derision of ‘Others’ has become normalised and unquestioned.

The current record levels of hate crime are therefore both the consequence and culmination of a society that is divided, demarcated and discriminatory, where permission to hate has been socially and politically bestowed on the willing. Given the uncertainty that continues to overshadow the entire Brexit process, it is highly unlikely that things will improve in the foreseeable future. As a piece in the New Statesman noted just this week, it is likely that if we leave the EU without a deal at the end of this month so hate crimes will surge. This too is the opinion of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, the UK’s police watchdog.

It is quite possible that the worse is yet to come.

Chris Allen is an academic, commentator and writer, with interests in Islamophobia, extremism and hate