Making sense of the EU Referendum hate crime spike: preparing for the future

By Matt Hall

In the wake of the Brexit vote, the UK saw a discouraging rise in hate crime. As headlines furled out- Police call emergency meeting to deal with post-Brexit vote explosion of racist hate crime (Daily Mirror) and Brexit: Wave of hate crime and racial abuse reported following EU referendum (The Independent) – it may have felt like we were in the midst of an epidemic. As a researcher interested in the interplay of far-right extremism and hate crime, getting an accurate picture of the figures is a priority.

The summer of 2016 alone engendered a catalogue of politicised tragedies, both nationally and abroad. Orlando, Jo Cox, Brexit, and terrorist attacks in Nice and Munich – each potentially a trigger event to be exploited by extremist groups. Now we await further anticipated spikes following the invoking of Article 50 in March, and at key junctures throughout the protracted, years-long process of leaving the EU. For hate crime scholars, accurate information on the EU-Referendum spike is key to understanding what might lay ahead.

As evidenced by national police statistics and third-party reporting services, the spike in hate crime was all too real. However, months later, there were suggestions that spike may have been the wrong word. Instead, for many, a “lasting rise in hate crime” (The Independent) was the general impression, despite NPCC figures having indicated a decline back to expected rates by mid-August. The expressly divisive nature of Brexit as a trigger cannot be completely ignored when exploring figures. Nonetheless, there are numerous forms other than hate crime in which normalised far-right nationalist sentiments can express themselves.

When interrogating the figures themselves, two further contexts emerge. Firstly, and most easily disaggregated from the given numbers, is the expected increase in reporting rates between July 2015/16. All monitored strands of hate crime recorded to the police have been steadily climbing since 2011 (Home Office) due to initiatives aimed at encouraging victims to report. This increase in reporting should not be misunderstood as anything but welcome.

Weighing for the second context is more onerous. What proportion of the remaining figures could be explained by amplified public vigilance to hate incidents? It seems likely that at least some of the increased reporting, particularly of public order offences, may have been encouraged by the flurry of coverage and anecdotes spanning social media. Was this something partially resembling the moral panics extensively written about by criminologists and cultural theorists, such as Stanley Cohen and Stuart Hall, through the 1970s and 80s? The overzealous use of the term ‘epidemic’ by parts of the press would certainly suggest as much.

Tentatively, I am proposing three contributors to the reported post-referendum hate crime spike: (1) an increase in hate behaviour – people felt a new license to express their prejudices; (2) an expected year-on-year increase in reporting rates; and (3) amplified public awareness leading to transient increases in reporting of routine hate crime. The challenge is how to disaggregate (1) from (2) and (3). This would offer a much more valid figure for the spike in actual hate incidents. If we can develop informed valuations for expected spikes following events like Brexit, then we may be on our way to measuring the impact of far-right exploitation of them on violence. This could help us plan appropriate interventions. But first and foremost, we need to refine our gaze to changes in hate crime rates, rather than reporting behaviours.


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