The spike in hate crimes in the aftermath of the EU referendum in the UK

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Introduction

Hate crime, according to the UK home office definition, refers to incidents where a perpetrator’s hostility against an individual or a community is a factor in determining who is to be victimised. However, in reality, anyone can fall victim to the prejudice and hostility of the perpetrator of the hate crime (Home Office, 2016). Hate crime can be in the form of physical assault, verbal or social media online racist abuse. The prejudice is directed towards the victims based on their religion, race, and their socioeconomic status. Hate crimes in the UK, thus, cover refugees, irregular immigrants, Muslims and immigrants from other EU countries, especially from Eastern Europe.

There has been a spike in racial violence following the EU referendum in the UK. The spike in racially motivated hate crime may be related to the racist environment created by the nativist discourse, pre, during, and in the post Brexit period. The EU referendum was preceded by an intense period of campaigns for divisive policies and programmes. Politicians were divided across the remain and exit camps, creating a conducive breeding ground for hate crime instigating the nativist’s led racial hate crimes (Burnett, 2017). The police chiefs and police have blamed bigoted individuals for the hate crimes, terming it as a law and order issue, rather than a socially based problem in Britain (Burnett, 2017).

As put across by Burnett (2017), “Whatever else Brexit means or does not mean, it certainly means racism. Born of fortuitous circumstances, lacking programme or policy, the government has had to find its ‘mandate’ in the twin Brexit themes: that immigration is unravelling of the nation, and anything foreign, except investment, is abhorrent to its ethos – thus giving a fillip to popular racism and elevating institutional racism to fully-fledged state racism.”

Brexit seems to embrace external investment, but abhor the ethos related to immigration. The political discourse in the UK relating to refugees, immigration, race and religion has not been shrouded in violence prior to the June 2016 EU referendum. The sheer level of hate-related crimes commenced in the period after the announcement of the June 24 results of the referendum (Burnett, 2017). In total, the UK Metropolitan police had reported over 2000 racist incidents in less than two months after the EU referendum. The spike in hate crime must be fired up by the divisive approach towards religions, immigration, and race adopted by the Brexit campaigners in their discourse. The debate revived the nativism agenda in the political circles that trickled down to institute hate crimes in the UK streets. Differences between races, religion and migrations status became a form of identity to divide the population and set apart some population of UK as more nativist than the rest. The Brexit campaigns and the consequent results embedded a hostile environment in the political fraternity, and over time it started to gain cultural roots in a section of UK population. Groups such as British First have become more emboldened by the result of the 24 June 2016 EU referendum. However, the spike in hate crime can be linked to a failure of the institution, the existing media framework, and government practices.

In order for the hate crime to rise to such high levels, there must have been some form of legitimisation of racial violence. One of the legitimisation platforms existed in the social media platform that exists outside the conventional media control and has a wide reach to the population. Immediately after the referendum, the online platforms were active in spreading racist abuse that evidently was bent on legitimising the racist abuse across the UK (Komaromi, 2016). The long-established groups that operated underground became emboldened campaigns and organised hostile and racially charged verbose. An example is The Monitoring Group that brought hundreds of its followers together in London to provide a way forward following the positive result of the referendum. A police-funded online reporting mechanism reported 85 hate crimes in the first four days after the EU referendum, relative to 57 hate crimes that had been reported a month prior to the EU referendum. Other statistics such as from the National Police Chiefs; Council (NPCC), reported an average of 331 allegations of hate crimes relative to a weekly average of 63. In total, 3000 hate crimes were reported across the UK from 16 June to the end of June. This represented a 42% increase in hate crimes compared to the same period in 2015 (Khalili, 2017).

Majority of the hate crimes were racist abuse, but they had low cases of physical assault, arson or death rates (Khalili, 2017). Most of the hate crime was directed towards European immigrants signifying the role of the Brexit in the spikes in the hate crimes. Eastern immigrants were the main targets for the racist abuse as well as Muslims. However, they were not the only group of people targeted since there were also anti-Semitic attacks; blacks were attacked and any group of people speaking in a foreign language (Khalili, 2017). Over half of the hate crimes reported bore the footprints of EU referendum and its consequent outcome with messages such as ‘taking the country back’ being splashed to the alleged ‘foreigners’ (Khalili, 2017).

The reason for the spike in the hate crimes may have been as a result of the referendum result having affirmed the notion that the country was not only ‘theirs’ but it was ‘theirs again’. This perspective has a hidden meaning as portrays the existence of a history of wrongs for the alleged ‘natives’, that was being corrected by the referendum. Racist attacks directed towards the alleged immigrants included derogatory sentiments such as “fuck off back to your country” and “get the fuck out of our country”. Another message that the referendum sought to portray is the assumed legal and cultural norms that were being reasserted by the win in the referendum (Burnett, 2017). For instance, a woman walking with her 9-year daughter was approached by a man who racially abused her and ripped her niqab and reportedly told her “You’re in Britain, live by British rules”. The vote to exit the European Union, to some, was seen as a way of making the courtesy ‘purely British’ by eliminating religions, communities, and races that were perceived by some sections that backed the referendum as ‘un-British’ (Burnett, 2017). The racist spike was legitimised by the perceived notion of entitlement. The entitlement crusade accepted immigrants from other countries and especially from eastern European countries not on who they were but the skills and expertise they brought to the UK. For example, a polish national was shouted at “we only tolerate you because of the income you bring in’ (Burnett, 2017). This implies that a homeless immigrant was not welcome in the UK since he or she is regarded as un-resourceful.

The hate crime may have been spurred by the betrayal perceived for those who campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU. The remain campaigners were targeted since they were seen as betrayers of the course of the nativism for the pro-Brexit camp. The EU referendum spurred an anti-migrant and anti-Muslim racism. It fed onto the existing forms of racism against Muslims and immigrants. Islamophobia became rampant. The EU referendum became a platform for debating who should stay or live in the UK and who should not. Routinely, Muslims and immigrant had been portrayed as the UK society antibodies and the EU referendum was just but a proxy to vent racist abuse against these groups (Burnett, 2017). These groups were regarded as undermining the UK values and transforming the British traditions and culture (Burnett, 2017). Over time, the war on terrorism and the terrorist attacks that had happened in London and other cities had given root to counter radicalism measures that effectively placed Muslims as possessing values that were antithetical to Britishness (Burnett, 2017).

The root of the post-referendum hate crimes was supplanted by a sustained structural racism with historical echoes. The racism and other forms of hate crimes that emerged after the referendum may have been as a result of typical referendum that embedded nationalism and media scares against the number of immigrants in the country. They generate national policy that stigmatises whole communities in the context of social and economic issues affecting the whole UK society. This may have been the message spread by far Rights groups intent on passing the problems the UK was experiencing to the number of immigrants and policies of welcoming them into the country. The hate crimes were a spill-over from an intensified referendum and an accurate manifestation of the political climate created by the opposing campaigns group in the pre-referendum period. The EU referendum normalised the xenoracism narratives and this narrative was demonstrated in the hostile environment in the social media platforms and in the streets where incidences physical assault occurred (Komaromi, 2016; Burnett, 2017).

The prevent strategy adopted by the Commission for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) campaigns had created mistrust and in its place supplanted Islamophobia for members of the Muslim communities (Home Office, 2016). The racist abuse was just but the result of a dominant ideological policy position which had been on gestation and the referendum offered an opportunity to reveal them. There existed parallelism between the leave campaign unofficial slogan ‘taking the country back’ and the racist abuse arguing for the same in the public discourse (Virdee & McGeever, 2017). As the homeless immigrant is rounded by police and immigration authorities, the racist abuse also targets the homeless immigrants indicating the parallelism between the authorities and leave campaigners. At the national level, legal requirements that demand UK agencies to profile people based on racial profiles and track irregular migrants also spewed hate crimes in the post-referendum period. The hate crime has been part of the political landscape narrative and only intensified after the win by the leave campaigners in the EU referendum (Virdee & McGeever, 2017).

The interpretation of racism by the media as well as political players, including the conservatives and liberals also spurred the hate crimes. The racial violence has always been underrated in the UK body politics and the media as a minority issue, ignoring the long history of racist violence in the UK. Prior to the referendum, the media and the politicians seem to have ignored this history in order to raise awareness about it (Virdee & McGeever, 2017). The political class and the media treated the racist abuse as being concentrated in the thuggish and expected it to be countered by the rubric of law and order (Virdee & McGeever, 2017). The media in its perspective, however, had a narrow view of racism. The media and the political landscape and the media failed to shape the notions of the post-referendum racism and its reception in the UK society.

The Brexit campaigns and the consequent results brought to the forefront the racialised migrants and the minorities included citizens of eastern European descent. The EU campaign was fuelled by two otherwise contradictory, but interlocking perspectives. The first perspective that shaped the ‘Leave’ campaign was the nostalgia for the empire and the occlusion of the underside of British imperialism (Burnett, 2017). Secondly, the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign was generated by the need for the UK to retreat from globalisation which to the leave campaigners was represented by the EU and the Eurozone (Burnett, 2017). The ‘Vote Leave’ campaigns relished the corrosive legacies of colonialism racism of the past that has reared its ‘head’ in the image of the EU (Burnett, 2017). Retreating from globalisation meant the citizens were to highlight whatever that did not recognisably belong to the UK. The narrative had gained traction from the carefully but orchestrated long-standing racialised structure of feelings and attitude towards British immigration and national belonging policies (Virdee & McGeever, 2017). The politics of Englishness were the invisible motivation behind the Brexit when viewed from a different angle (Virdee & McGeever, 2017).

The Englishness is defined by two striking phenomena that related English national feeling and the desire for the empire. The neoliberalism that Britain took following its entry into the EU spurred national resentment and its body politics. In the end, as experiences of downward mobility increase and class economic injuries increased, nationalism gained a footing and led to the momentous neoliberalism that had tolerated the immigrants and globalisation. However, Englishness was reasserted in the national discourse on racism, Brexit and a crisis by outlining of hope following the elimination of the ‘unBritish’ from the UK (Virdee & McGeever, 2017). The leave campaign factions including the right-wing conservative and the unofficial referendum campaign led by UKIP leader Nigel Farage emphasised the sovereign will of the British people. The erosion of the democratic right of the British people was intertwined with political and economic returns after detaching Britain from the EU (Virdee & McGeever, 2017). Nonetheless, the leave campaign narrative was shrouded by the search of a lost empire where proponents of the ‘Leave’ campaign argued for the reestablishment of direct ties with Old commonwealth members, for example, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. In addition, to the reestablishment of direct trade links with India and China. The cause of the hate crime can be understood from the relationship between the nation of England and race. The two are bound up with the lost or declined British empire. As the empire expanded it brought in the UK the consolidation of colonialism racism where the British people regarded themselves as the ruling elite (Virdee & McGeever, 2017).

The imperial moment that the British had towards the end of the 19th century has remained in England matrix to this day spewing hate crimes following the Brexit results. England and the British nationhood was to be re-imagined as the allegiance to whiteness following the decolonisation and the arrival of immigrants from such lands as India and the Caribbean. The racism and the hate crimes resulting from the post-referendum period had its roots from this nostalgia of the British empire and the decline of Britain from the 1970s as neoliberalism set in (Burnett, 2017). The disaggregation of the working class from the conservatives and their continued weakening by liberals drew in itself resentment for neoliberalism and any forms that seem to represent it. The language of solidarity and politics of class came to the forefront in the referendum effectively diminishing the counter-currents of anti-racism and the neoliberalism that aligned with the politics of blackness (Burnett, 2017). The prospect of downward mobility has borne collective experiences due to class injuries that spews the resentment politics that led to an increase in hate crimes and racist abuse following the win of the Leave camp in the EU referendum. The multiethnic framework of UK is viewed under the racialised lenses that generate resentful politics of English nationalism. In the recent, 2008 financial crises racialising nationalism became more emboldened as the proponents perceived a deep sense of loss of prestige (Burnett, 2017). This made them retreat to the damaging effect of globalisation and its representatives.

These representatives were perceived to be foreign workers and immigrants that were blamed by the racist abuse as the cause of the economic decline of Britain and the loss of prestige in the global stage (Virdee & McGeever, 2017). This was a discursive architecture in the Leave campaign and as highlighted in Hall (2000), Englishness has always been accompanied by a racial signature. This racial signature was evident in the streets in the racial abuses and physical assault to the perceived ‘outsiders’ and in the racism in the social media platforms (Komaromi, 2016). The conversion of Englishness was intertwined with immigration for the Eurosceptics in the Leave camp. The hardening of the attitudes towards immigrants, refugees and eastern European workers was carried in the leave camp campaign message for the duration of the campaign. This was toxic to the multiethnic social framework of UK, eventually normalising hate crimes as the elite political discourse and practice seemed to legitimise it. The spaces for the British racialised minorities to live free from hate were being shrunk by the Leave campaign messages.

The hate crime may stem from the dominant framing for racism riding on the electoral success of UKIP in the 2015 general elections. The Englishman politicisation is demonstrated by the over ninety percent of the votes cast in 2015 for the UKIP coming from England (Virdee & McGeever, 2017). The sedimented racist nationalist populism was the driver of the UKIP party, which it circulated in the mainstream political discourse. However, UKIP alone cannot be blamed for the spread of the racism agenda in the mainstream political discourse and the hate crime that resulted in the post-referendum period. The hate crime may have been as a result of the changing geopolitical platform after the 9/11 that consolidated a radicalised opposition to a common enemy, radicalised Muslims (Virdee & McGeever, 2017). The Islamaphobia narrative portrays that Islam and its culture are incompatible with tolerance and diversity in the British society (Virdee & McGeever, 2017). The emancipatory potential and the regularity of gay and feminist discourses could not live side by side with Muslims and their culture. The anti-muslim narrative was the rationale for conservative and labour members to turn against the multiculturalism they had embraced earlier. In the process nationalism or the politicisation of the Englishness was pulled along.

From the onset, the UK was never part of the eurozone. The EU, empire of free trade may have engineered the xenophobic attacks through the free movement of people across European boundaries. Throughout the recent history of the British society, the need for migrant workers has trumped England aversion with foreigners. This can be evidently seen in the xenophobic attacks that followed the reconstruction of the devastated country following the second world war. The denial by the British political narrative to acknowledge the country past colonial legacy and the interwoven racism may have exacerbated the hate crimes spike in shortly after the EU referendum (Gilroy, 2004). Hate crimes have can also bore their root from the neoliberalism policies which are blamed for the lack of housing, proper publicly funded universal health care and insecurity due to a weakening working class and the influx of cheap migrant labour force. The neoliberalism policies of privatisation and austerity may have negatively impacted national life and diminished UK mobility. Most of the policies by the UK government preceding the Brexit vote was designed to normalise hate crimes and spur racist abuse. For example, the home office minister, Theresa May, back in 2012 had promised to create a hostile environment for the refugees and irregular migrants by having ‘Go home or face arrest vans (Home Office, 2016). Of the hate crimes reported, 14% were threats of violence or actual physical abuse.

Most of the hate crimes were targeted at the minority and they came to the media attention when MPs and journalist were targeted in racist abuses. What has supported the increase in hate crimes following the EU referendum is the exposure of the ‘insiders’ vs ‘outsiders’ rhetoric. The Brexit main underlying policy has been that of creating a hostile environment for non-UK citizens. Embedding the hostile environment in the political discourse made it trickle down to the society where it took cultural roots and became the motivation for hate crimes in the social media and even physical and verbal abuses to perceived foreigners (Burnett, 2017). Therefore, the Vote Leave campaign was an extension of the political mainstream of creating a hostile environment for irregular migrants in the UK. The hostile stance took the form of xeno-racist perspective and immigration was its central focus. Three pillars of Vote Leave campaign to highlight the link between the campaign and the hate crimes following the post-referendum period. Firstly, there was the media-backed support for exclusion nationalism in the UK, secondly, the Vote Leave campaign had an anti-immigration rhetoric that targeted the unskilled labourers from poor countries, and the Eastern Europe (Burnett, 2017). Firstly, it promoted Islamophobia which cited anti-refugee sentiment for refugees coming from Muslim majority countries (Burnett, 2017). The campaign for Vote Leave inadvertently generated panic in the vast majority of the population and effectively demonised the migrants. It linked the EU with an addition of over 1 million to the UK population. UKIP carried the traction of demonising migrant in its campaigns based on some untruths such a the suggestion of the EU to be a non-white phenomenon (Cuerden & Rogers, 2017). This suggested the EU has contributed to the influx of young and able-bodied immigrants who will steal the livelihoods and jobs from the British people.

Moreover, immigrants especially those from the Muslim majority counties were regarded as ‘Trojan horse’ for the importation of radicalised Islamist terrorists to the heart of the UK. This continued discourse in the mainstream political arena and media normalised and legitimised hate crimes against the minority populations. The Vote Leave campaign painted Britain as an embattled country and it borrowed this narrative from the collective identity during the two world wars (Cuerden & Rogers, 2017). Even some politicians such as Boris Johnson likened the European Union aims with the goal of Hitler. Hate for the minorities groups continued to be incubated through the leave campaign central narrative of self-image and an indomitable people that had endured two world wars. Englishness and the exclusivity of white Christians were encouraged. It acted as the bedrock under which immigrants were demonised and hate crimes perpetrated against them. Literary hate crimes were as a result of the imaginary or perceived oppositional enemy created by the Vote leave camp.

Conclusion

Brexit was related to the Euroscepticism and the influx of Eastern European workers which threatened the stability of the British workers. The Eastern European workers had a willingness to work even for lower wages, increasing the rise of hate crimes in the aftermath of Brexit. Hate crime in the aftermath of Brexit was a socioeconomic and partly a criminal issue in the UK society. The perpetrators victimised any communities that they perceived as lacking ‘British values’ that were vested in the race, language and religions. Various strategies can be used to prevent the rise of such hate crime including, adequate preparedness when engaging in divisive political rhetoric that divides the UK society. The hate crimes did not receive enough attention in the mainstream media until when prominent members of the society such as MPs and journalist were attacked. The response of the society including the police need to be improved in their recording and mitigation of hate crimes in the streets and in the social media platforms. The wider society needs to challenge the beliefs and attitudes that propagate such hate crimes by fighting hatred and prejudice in communities’ centres such as schools and other social centres. Action for tackling hate crime including preventative measures that transform the beliefs and attitudes of the society towards the victims of such crimes, for example, the Muslim followers and separating them from radicalised terrorist. Fighting terrorism has had the effect of painting whole communities as a threat to the British values system leading to a surge in hate crimes against Muslims. Response to hate crimes in communities can reduce their incidence since authorities can be perceived to be delegitimising the crime. Lack of police actions can be viewed as toleration of the crime and passive backing for hate crimes by the society. The victims of hate crime should also be offered appropriate avenues for reporting the crimes without unnecessary victimisation. This can give victims more confidence in reporting the crimes. Hate crimes are a source of distress and appropriate support should be availed for the victims. Hate crimes can only be addressed effectively by understanding their scale and nature. Prior to the June 2016 EU referendum in the UK, the mainstream media and the politicians ignored the rhetoric in the campaign that could later build up into a spike in hate crimes in the post-referendum period.

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  1. Burnett, J. (2017). Racial violence and the Brexit state. Race and Class, 58(4), 85–97. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306396816686283
  2. Cuerden, G., & Rogers, C. (2017). Exploring Race Hate Crime Reporting in Wales Following Brexit. Review of European Studies, 9(1), 158. https://doi.org/10.5539/res.v9n1p158
  3. Gilroy, P. (2004). After empire: Melancholia or convivial culture? Race (p. 183). New York: Routledge. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=ayKIQgAACAAJ
  4. Home Office, (July, 2016). Action Against Hate: The UK Government’s plan for tackling hate crime. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/543679/Action_Against_Hate_-_UK_Government_s_Plan_to_Tackle_Hate_Crime_2016.pdf
  5. Khalili, L. (2017) After Brexit: Reckoning With Britain’s Racism and Xenophobia, Poem, 5:2-3, 253-265, Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/20519842.2017.1292758
  6. Komaromi, P. (2016). Post-referendum Racism and Xenophobia: The role of social media activism in challenging the normalisation of xeno-racist narratives (UK, Worrying Signs, iStreetWatch and Post ref racism, 2016). Retrieved from http://www.irr.org.uk/news/post-referendum-racism-and-the-importance-of-social-activism/
  7. Virdee, S. & Brendan McGeever. B. (2017). Racism, Crisis, Brexit, Ethnic and Racial Studies. Retrived from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2017.1361544
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