The U.K.’s European Union referendum campaign and vote to leave the EU unleashed something long-hidden in a small but determined core of die-hard race-haters and “rejectionists” — those who reject not only the EU, but all immigration and existing minorities in Britain.
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During and after the referendum, reports streamed in to the police and community organizations of a spike in racist abuse, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents, hostility directed towards Polish migrants and other minorities. This led the National Police Chiefs Council to reveal that more than 6,000 hate crimes were reported from the middle of June (during the referendum campaign) to mid-July, or a rise of nearly 20% year-on-year.
Incidents of hate crime in late June included the distribution of cards bearing the words, "no more Polish vermin", and numerous reports of non-white people being told to leave the country. In Walsall, in the Midlands, a bottle of "ignited liquid" was thrown at an employee of a halal butcher shop, while BBC presenter Trish Adudu described how she was subjected to a racist tirade in Coventry city center. An American sports lecturer on a Manchester tram suffered an onslaught of foul-mouthed abuse and was told to “get back to Africa” by three young men, in an incident which was videoed and widely viewed on social media.
The referendum campaign itself was marred by anti-immigrant rhetoric, with Nigel Farage, the bilious leader of the U.K. Independence Party, which has campaigned for the U.K. to leave the EU and strong anti-immigration measures, appearing proudly in front of a poster of Syrian refugees with “Breaking Point” emblazoned on it. And, at the height of the referendum campaign, the widely-respected pro-Remain young MP and mother, Jo Cox, was killed.
In response, new anti-hate crime initiatives have been created, national newspapers have led with reports of this surge in intolerance, while the Home Secretary has announced that the government will launch a review of police handling of hate crime — while investigative journalists have suggested that police forces are struggling to process many incidents.
All of this takes place in an international context of hate crimes and violence as well, of course: ISIS-inspired attacks in France and Germany, scores killed in Nice and a priest slain by young Islamic extremists in Normandy, while a young man who appeared to sympathize with far-right extremists (on the fifth anniversary of Anders Breivik’s Norway killings of 2011) went on a shooting rampage in Munich. In the United States, meanwhile, hardly a day goes by without Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump abusing one minority group or another, playing on people’s fears and prejudices.
We are living in very worrying times in terms of hate and extremism seguing too easily into violence.
Thankfully in the U.K., however, far-right groups remain structurally weak, with traditional neo-Nazi organizations such as the British National Party and the anti-Muslim street movement, the English Defence League, both in terminal decline. As those groups have split, we’ve witnessed an upsurge in relatively small, but often confrontational, ‘grouplets’.
Some, such as the militant anti-Muslim Britain First, have deliberately chosen the path of confrontation, stoking up trouble outside or inside mosques, thrusting Bibles into the hands of elderly imams, fighting with young Muslims on the streets. Britain First declares itself a “Christian” organization, but with a membership drawn from ex-supporters of the far-right BNP. With 1.5 million ‘likes’ on Facebook, it is nominally the largest U.K. political party online but its demonstrations struggle to attract more than 100-200 attendees, suggesting many of these ‘likes’ have been bought. The group recognizes the recruitment and incitement power of social media: it is very active on Facebook and YouTube, and pushes carefully edited videos online of its confrontations with the Muslim community.
Others, such as National Action, a deeply anti-Semitic and pro-Hitler group, still parade in black-clad militia gear and organize martial arts and survivalist training. Its followers have hounded Jewish MPs and one such follower, Zack Davies, attempted to behead a Sikh dentist in north Wales last year believing he was a Muslim. Again, public demonstrations of its numbers indicate its marginality: National Action barely manages to raise a crowd of more than 50 supporters, though it is alleged that its mostly-young members are primarily active on the dark web.
Islamist extremists groups with a readiness to incite and use violence are also been active in the U.K. It is estimated that several hundred Britons have traveled to Syria to join jihadist groups there; their return home as experienced, motivated and radicalized fighters is a serious cause for concern. In the U.K. several British Muslims have already been sentenced in court for violent attacks they claim was motivated by sympathy for radical Islamists in Syria: Muhiddin Mire who tried to cut the throat of a musician at a Tube station in London and Nadir Syed, who planned to decapitate a Remembrance Day poppy-seller.
Amidst all this outpouring of hate it is easy to forget that the vast majority of Britons totally reject extremism. A major survey of public attitudes, commissioned in February 2016 by my organization, HOPE not hate, found that Britain was more comfortable with immigration and a multicultural society than in a similar study we conducted in 2011. While our report highlighted many problems in society, the majority clearly expressed their willingness to live together peacefully and stand against extremism from all quarters.
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum campaign we commissioned another survey focusing on England to see how the campaign and result had altered opinions. It found that English society was no more “racist” than it had been before, but those who already held racist views felt emboldened to act out on their prejudices.
Certainly we are a more polarized and divided society than before the Brexit vote. Those identifying strongly with multicultural beliefs have grown in number (38% now up from 32% in February). Meanwhile, the hardcore of racists and rejectionists have actually shrunk since the vote (20% now, down from 24%).
Of this latter group, about 7% according to our poll are the most disengaged from traditional political processes and the most hostile to immigrants and what they think immigration represents. Drawing more support from the unskilled and the unemployed, and opposed to all ethnicities or religions other than their own, many believe that violence is acceptable if it is a consequence of standing up for what is ‘right.’ This group has declined sharply since 2011, an encouraging development which suggests that even those with deep concerns about immigration and identity are now more willing to engage with the political system, and less willing to consider direct action or violence as a means to express their concerns. However it would still be from this 7% that those carrying out racist abuse including violence will emerge.
One example of an initiative to bring our divided communities together is our #MoreInCommon campaign, named after a phrase favored by murdered MP Jo Cox. Through community events across the country we hope to bring people with very different views together to talk. Longer term, we aim to expand our work within white working class communities, those in areas that voted heavily to leave the EU because of fears about immigration and job losses. These are often located in de-industrialized areas, which used to vote heavily for the Labour Party (now in disarray). We know that we need to reach out to include those from very different backgrounds to those who already ascribe to the usual pro-diversity, pro-multicultural worldview that might support anti-racist campaigns. It will be a long, hard road that will challenge us as an organization as well as those we seek to reach. But we’ve got to make it work.
The Brexit campaign’s race-hate effect has not yet played out in full. Our most recent report found that those most opposed to immigration and a multicultural society were most pessimistic about the future before the referendum. Now, after the vote, those with the most exclusionary attitudes are the most optimistic about the future. By a huge margin, they believe that both their economic fortunes are going to improve and that the U.K. government will be able to drastically limit immigration.
If this doesn't happen — and it's unlikely to happen — then these voters will be angry, disappointed and they will be looking for someone to blame. We can’t wait for the climate of hate and fear against minorities in Britain to deteriorate further. It is crucial that the work of bringing communities together is tackled with sufficiency urgency.
Nick Lowles is chief executive of the U.K. anti-racism and anti-extremism campaign, HOPE not hate.