Hate speech is allowed under the guise of democratic debate

Earlier this week, the Home Office published its report into Hate Crime in England and Wales for 2016/17. The report shows that hate crimes in the UK are increasing; in 2016/17 there were 80,393 hate crimes recorded by police, a 29% increase from 2015/16.

Although some commentators have argued that increased public awareness and improvements in recording hate crime negate the need for any real analysis or concern over the results, the spike in crimes around the EU Referendum needs further exploration.

This report has seen the largest increase in hate crimes since the series began in 2011/12, with spikes around the EU Referendum and the Westminster Bridge attack. Arguably, the anti-immigration sentiment evoked during the EU Referendum made people feel as though they too could express anti-immigrant feeling, potentially in the form of a racially motivated hate crime.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration released a report this August declaring the government’s rhetoric on immigration to be fuelling toxic anti-immigration sentiment. They warned against the “poisonous” EU referendum campaigns, which they argued formed a barrier to creating a socially integrated nation.

There has been an increase in this polarising language, imbued with undertones of racism, for example, Theresa May’s now discredited targets of cutting migrant numbers. There was an increase in police recorded hate crime following the Westminster bridge, Manchester Arena, London Bridge and Borough Market attacks this year.

The “genuine rise in hate crime around the time of the referendum” seems to have been eased by the government’s own actions. Racist, anti-immigration sentiment has been propagated top-down by the government disguised as democratic debate of the EU Referendum. Throughout history, politicians have appealed to a constructed sense of national identity to further their own political causes.

In the case of Brexit, Nigel Farage exploited people’s fear that high levels of immigration would infringe on English identity. This fear was harnessed into a powerful, and largely underestimated, political force. As reprehensible as it is, it is not surprising that hate crime increased around the time of the EU referendum when politicians were playing on people’s fear of the erasure of their own English identity. English identity was crucial to the Leave campaign and of the 30 areas with the most people identifying as English, all 30 voted to leave.

Just as the nation is put under the microscope at a time of political turmoil, such as the EU Referendum, so is people’s own sense of national identity. Farage perhaps had some of the groundwork laid for him by the infamous Enoch Powell whose 1968 Rivers of Blood speech, which defended a sense of national identity from the perceived threat of immigration.

Powell was speaking up on behalf of a proportion of the population who held a sense of resentment, a sense of being overlooked when it came to what they wanted regarding immigration. His rhetorical prowess enabled him to move the immigration debate away from the fringes of conversation and into the mainstream. Today, mainstream political parties are afraid of dealing with immigration, leaving groups of people feeling underrepresented and looking to more extreme parties.

Just as Enoch Powell back in the 1960s gave racism a more acceptable mainstream face, we are seeing much of the same with the popularity of UKIP and other nationalist parties across Europe. The APPG Integration not Demonisation warned that the government’s language and attitude led some people to feel “they could act on racist attitudes which had previously gone unexpressed”.

This has been seen in Europe as well, the FPO has found widespread appeal for their openly Islamophobic and xenophobic views as has Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache played on Austrian’s’ fear of a diminishing of their culture, claiming that Austria was being Islamified and calling for a ban on Muslim symbols.

Enoch Powell championed a form of national identity that was based on racial othering, an “us” and “them” mentality which argued for a reduction in immigration in order to prevent any encroachment on English identity. His legacy permanently entangled race and immigration.

During the EU referendum, the Leave campaign in particular exploited people’s fears about immigration and it is therefore unsurprising we are left with such a toxic legacy, a climate in which racist fears are legitimised and manifest themselves in hate crimes.

Get in touch with the team