Is Surging Hate Crime in the UK Overcooked?
Photo by T. Chick McClure on Unsplash.

Is Surging Hate Crime in the UK Overcooked?

Ben Cobley
Ben Cobley
11 min read

On August 27, 2016, a Polish man named Arkadiusz Jozwik was brutally murdered in the English town of Harlow in one of the most notorious of many racist hate crimes occurring around Britain’s referendum on leaving the European Union.

On BBC News, experienced reporter Daniel Sandford said police thought the attack may have been racially motivated: “The fear is that this was a frenzied racist attack triggered by the Brexit referendum.” In flagging up his report for BBC’s Newsnight programme, John Sweeney, an experienced and respected investigative journalist, described the incident as “post-Brexit rage meets anti-social Britain.”

Jakob Krupa, UK correspondent for the Polish Press Agency, followed up for the Guardian in an article entitled: “The killing of a Polish man exposes the reality of post-referendum racism.” The New York Times joined other publications in reporting that Jozwik was attacked by a gang because he had been speaking Polish in public. Liberal-left commentators and their readers worked themselves up into a frenzy of anger and blame, with LBC Radio’s James O’Brien saying that Brexit campaigners had “blood on their hands.”

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker piled in, saying in his annual address, “We Europeans can never accept Polish workers being harassed, beaten up or even murdered on the streets of Harlow.” It became such big news in Poland that the government arranged to send its own police to the town in order to protect its citizens.

Except it wasn’t true. When the case came to court, it emerged that Jozwik had approached a group of teenagers with a friend after a night of drinking, pushing some of them and apparently throwing the odd racist insult. When one of the youngsters, who was on bail at the time, got up and punched the burly Jozwik in response, he staggered, fell and cracked his head on the pavement. The 15-year old defendant was given three years and the case was consigned to the dustbin of history, with the BBC burying it on a local news page.

This was a genuinely tragic case. Other stories of apparent hate crime around the referendum period are less so.

One that gained similar attention was the daubing of a Polish cultural center in Hammersmith, London, with yellow graffiti a couple of days after the vote—something the center reported to police as a hate incident. Several months later, British newspapers were still reporting that the graffiti said “Go Home,” when it actually read “Fuck You OMP.” As a few Polish speakers pointed out amidst the hysteria, OMP stands for Ośrodek Myśli Politycznej, a Eurosceptic Polish think-tank that had congratulated Britain on its vote to leave the EU.

The waves of sympathy the incident attracted were part touching, part nakedly political. But it was seemingly based on nonsense—an untruth that fitted into a greater, more general, socialised narrative of story-telling; of angels and devils.

As I have written in my book The Tribe: the Liberal-Left and the System of Diversity, the belief that these incidents were Brexit-related hate crimes gained such traction because they activated a group of political relations that I call “the system of diversity.” In this instance, the claim that some identity groups (immigrants, Poles) were under attack from certain other groups (ethnically English people, Brexit voters) drew on an established narrative, correctly anticipating a powerful response of support and favour. From journalists in making news and appealing to their editors; from community leaders wanting to raise their profile; and from campaigners wanting to attack their opponents as intolerant racists.

As I write in The Tribe, the system of diversity offers us meaning and purpose, allowing us to cast ourselves as the protectors of victim groups (like immigrants, non-whites, women and LGBT people) from evil oppressors (including the ethnic British or English, white people, men and heterosexuals, or ‘cisgender’ people). Like most identity politics, both in its present incarnation and historically, it is simple, familiar and easy to put into practice. We can ‘roll it out’ across public and even private life, putting in place various rules and punishing those who do not abide by them.

The role of statistics

Statistics have played an important role in establishing the mythology that we are in the midst of a Brexit-related hate crime epidemic.

They offer that special form of modern authority—of apparently disinterested, objective knowledge, of numbers apparently unblemished by an agenda. If these statistics have official status, backed up by implicitly trustworthy, august institutions said to be devoted to accuracy, rigorous standards, like the Office for National Statistics, they bear even more authority.

However, the hate crime statistics, as embodied in this official data, are highly dubious. Reported incidents in the last two weeks of June 2016 (the EU Referendum was on June 23rd) totalled 3,192, a 48 percent increase over the same period in 2015, with the first two weeks of July seeing a 20 percent increase compared to the previous year. Three years on, still hardly a day goes by without an anti-Brexit speech or opinion piece utilising these and related figures, pointing out how they soil the country’s reputation.

The numbers look bad and could partly reflect a real rise. After all, Brexit is fundamentally a contest over identity (British versus European and/or the rest of the world), so it’s perfectly possible that more hateful activity happened between these identity groups during this time.

However, rarely, if ever, do you see a modicum of critical thinking when it comes to analysing this data, and if you take a few minutes to look at how they are compiled, alarm bells start to ring. The College of Policing’s Hate Crime Operational Guidance says:

For recording purposes, the perception of the victim, or any other person, is the defining factor in determining whether an incident is a hate incident, or in recognising the hostility element of a hate crime. The victim does not have to justify or provide evidence of their belief, and police officers or staff should not directly challenge this perception. Evidence of the hostility is not required for an incident or crime to be recorded as a hate crime or hate incident.

It is worth repeating here that evidence “is not required” for the recording of hate incidents or crimes. For the prosecution and conviction of incidents, normal standards of evidence apply, but not when it comes to reporting and recording. Anyone can report anything (or nothing) as a hate incident. You can even report it anonymously. Yet it will be recorded and reflected in the statistics.

This has led to all sorts of confusion and bad practice, spreading out from state agencies into the media and the public. The Home Office report highlighting a surge in hate crime around the referendum described how “the increase” is partly “due to a genuine increase in hate crime”; a half-recognition that not all hate crimes are genuine crimes. However, the report refers throughout to “hate crimes,” rather than “reports” or “recorded incidents.” Of the referendum period it says: “Around this time there was a clear spike in hate crime.” Again, this is presented as an absolute statement of fact. But it supports this statement with the much weaker, “Anecdotal evidence suggests that there was an increase in these types of offences.”

In October of last year, David Goodhart and Richard Norrie compared the official numbers to those recorded in the Crime Survey of England and Wales, which is based on a large survey of individuals and includes accounts of crimes not reported to the police. These figures suggest that hate incidents have been falling sharply over the last decade or so. For the period 2015-16 to 2017-18, the survey results suggest an average of 184,000 incidents per year—way more than in the official police figures, but down from an average of 307,000 each year between 2007-8 and 2008-9.

They add: “It is also worth noting that there has been no marked increase in the number of successful prosecutions for hate crime incidents which have remained around the 12,000 mark for several years and actually fell slightly last year.” In other words, about four percent of hate incidents end in someone being found guilty in a court of law where evidence is required to secure a conviction.

In spite of this, the numbers of reports around the time of the 2016 referendum are what normally get referred to, with nothing about what percentage of these incidents were investigated by the police, or what percentage ended in a successful prosecution. For leading British institutions, politicians and commentators, the apparent surge in hate crimes surrounding Brexit has been one of its core features, allowing them to present the vote to leave the European Union as a tainted and fundamentally racist episode in Britain’s history.

Another reason the official hate crime figures should be treated with caution is because we have good reason to think people were more likely to report hate incidents around this time. I don’t just mean that Europhiles who had persuaded themselves that Leavers were racist and xenophobic were primed to interpret more or less anything they disapproved of through this lens, such as Amber Rudd’s speech at the Conservative Party’s 2016 annual conference which was reported (and recorded) as a hate incident. I mean that the authorities were actively encouraging people to report hate crimes at the time of the Referendum. Labour Party and pro-Remain politicians, such as London Mayor Sadiq Khan, heavily promoted the reporting of hate crime in the summer of 2016. Khan’s own office added to the proliferating number of reporting mechanisms by setting up a web page urging people to telephone or send an email about “hate crimes following the referendum result.” Meanwhile, police forces and local councils were busily engaging with “community forums,” encouraging group and community leaders to report hate incidents.

By encouraging reporting, you are likely to increase the number of reports, but that increase doesn’t tell us anything about whether the underlying number of hate incidents has increased. We might call this a version of what The Wire creator David Simon has referred to as “juking the stats”—and it has played right into the hands of progressive Remain campaigners and their allies in the system of diversity.

From the top level of politics downwards, the rhetoric was and remains extreme. During the period of the referendum, Khan used the term “Project Hate” to describe Leave campaigners, encouraging people to criminalise anyone who wanted to leave the European Union. In July 2016, the broadcaster Mariella Frostrup wrote an article in the Observer about the “hate crimes being committed daily on our streets,” called Leave voters “a big bag of snakes,” and said that “civil war is the inevitable consequence.”

Background: police and law

The College of Policing says it holds no information about how it formulated its Operational Guidance or who consulted on it. In response to a Freedom of Information request, it said, “Research, drafts and consultation returns were initially archived and subsequently destroyed as appropriate,” and “no consolidated list of authors and their professional qualifications is held by the College of Policing.”

However, there are some clues. For a start, the document’s “Further Reading” list refers to some sources, almost all dating back to Labour’s period in office. The foreword is written by Dr Nathan Hall, a trustee of the anti-hate crime charity Stop Hate UK. He reveals the important influence of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry that Tony Blair’s first government set up to look into “matters arising” from the brutal racist murder of a black British teenager in South East London in 1993, and which concluded that the police were “institutionally racist.” Here, we find the idea that “all victims should not be treated the same. Rather, they should receive a service from the police that is appropriate to their needs [my italics].” We also find the Inquiry recommending that the police service must ”deliver a service which recognises the different experiences, perceptions and needs of a diverse society.”

From this and other discussions of hate crime in official circles and the media, it sometimes appears that the law should treat some people (often referred to as “minorities”) more favourably than others. Indeed, Dr Hall’s foreword makes this idea of a justice system with different standards for different groups more or less explicit.

Most hate crime law comes from the Labour governments of 1997-2010. In 1998 the first Blair administration created the category of racially-aggravated offences, so that offences in which racial hatred was an aspect attracted harsher sentences on conviction. The second Blair administration added “religiously aggravated” offences after September 11th, 2001, and went on to add disability and sexuality in 2003. Three times, Labour sought to extend existing law on incitement to racial hatred to cover religion, finally getting the Racial and Religious Hatred Act through in 2006, albeit watered down after the comedian Rowan Atkinson led a campaign against the introduction of a blasphemy law and the House of Lords refused to approve the original version.

Labour’s desperate efforts to get something through on religious hatred were largely due to the party’s attempts to win back the votes of Britain’s Muslims, many of whom were alienated from the Labour Party by Blair’s support for the Iraq War. Muslim representatives had been demanding a law banning anti-Muslim speech for years and they are currently making another push to do so by defining Islamophobia as “a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness,” something that would effectively ban all criticisms of Islam, Muslim leaders and groups that claim to represent Muslims.

The politics here consists of a continuous call-and-response between Labour (and sometimes Conservative) politicians and the self-appointed representatives of various protected groups of voters whose favour they want. And the currency of these representatives is grievance, now rubber-stamped as “hate” by the authorities.

Brexit and the “surge” in reported hate incidents has provided renewed opportunities for organisations representing favoured groups to raise their profile and draw attention to their causes. The Observer began one story on an apparent surge in homophobia with the following words: “The number of homophobic attacks more than doubled in the three months after the Brexit vote, with toxicity fostered by the EU referendum debate spreading beyond race and religion, new figures suggest.” Scroll down to these figures and you find they have been prepared by an LGBT anti-violence charity called Galop. This charity gave “support” to 187 people “who had suffered hate crimes in the three months that followed the referendum vote.” And, as is standard in such stories, they are attached to a campaigning agenda, in this case to redress the imbalance in sentences for assaults connected to a person’s sexuality compared to sentences connected to a person’s race or religion.

The ecosystem surrounding hate crime now includes a proliferation of groups that attract government funding to promote reporting. Intersecting with these we find a number of organisations that purport to fight “hate” itself. Both types of organisation nearly always have strong links to liberal-left politicians and parties and engage in campaigning. However, when contributing to public discussions in the media, they generally find themselves presented as independent, expert organisations, overseeing the moral health of the nation on identity issues and policing the public square.

Hope Not Hate was founded 2004 to fight the British National Party (BNP) but now spreads its wings much more widely. It campaigns against Brexit, encourages young people to vote, and presses politicians to retain unrestricted immigration policies. Its chief executive, Nick Lowles, has said that calling for an end to open borders between Britain and Europe is “morally wrong” and urged all “progressive” organisations to “step up their game” when it comes to opposing Brexit. Stop Hate UK is a state-funded anti-hate crime charity whose chief executive, Rose Simkins, recently blamed pro-Brexit politicians for a doubling of reported hate incidents on the London Underground.

We see here a similar type of slippage in standards that we see in the statistics: a broadening and loosening of boundaries of what can be described as “hate” to promote institutional activity designed to combat it. We see this right across the public sphere.

Hate crime now appears as a political crime, an outrage against social justice. There is a good case for saying that actual incidents of genuine hate crime should be seen in this way. But the loosening of standards has helped broaden social definitions of criminality to the extent that pretty much anyone who does not rigorously observe the favouritisms of the system of diversity is open to forms of social sanction—for example, in finding and retaining work, and in being allowed to participate in public life. Accusing your opponents of causing people to commit hate crimes—or branding them hate criminals—is now a perfectly legitimate weapon against your political opponents and unprotected identity groups, and even, in some cases, a way of expressing hatred for them (but of an approved kind that is not defined as hate). As Brendan O’Neill has commented, it has effectively facilitated “a libel against the nation” following the Brexit vote.

Writing about the criminalisation of “hate” in the United States in the late twentieth century, the academics Valerie Jenness and Ryken Grattet quote the journalist John Leo, a free speech advocate:

More and more aggrieved groups want to magnify their victim status. This is one of the little inter-group truths nobody talks about: The more victimized you seem, the more political leverage you have. But you cannot win the victimization Olympics without lots of plain hard work.

This is one of the striking things about how the British public square has changed over the past 25 years: Progressives have put in a lot of hard work to institutionally and legally embed their way of dividing the world into favoured and unfavoured identity groups. And, if anything, it has become more pronounced under the Conservative-led governments that have been in power for the past nine years.

This is what political scientists call hegemony, and hate crime has become an essential tool for securing and preserving it.

CrimeDiversityHate CrimeHope Not HaterecentStop Hate UK

Ben Cobley

Ben Cobley is the author of The Tribe: the Liberal-Left and the System of Diversity. He is a journalist and a former Labour Party activist.