Brexit result triggers wave of hate crimes in UK

Referendum vote to Leave European Union unleashes wave of pent-up extremist anger

On the shores of Blackpool in the northwest of England, the shockwaves from the Brexit referendum result felt in London are just a distant and faint tremor. This tired, typically English seaside resort voted 67.5 percent in favour of leaving the EU.

 

“Asylum seekers are selling drugs to kids and raping our women,” a middle-aged man in northern England, his face contorted with rage, told me last week when I asked why he was voting for Brexit.

Unless the UK left the EU, he assured me, the country would descend into civil war between whites and Muslims.

Extremist views were not hard to find on the referendum campaign trail. The following day, in another part of northern England, a young woman told me that her country was being “overrun by Muslims” who are having “100 kids each”. Now that Brexit has come to pass, such poisonous sentiments have mutated into action.

Racist incidents have risen by 57 per cent in just a single week. “Disgraceful examples of racial abuse have been reported around the country this week,” said Mark Hamilton, who is responsible for dealing with hate crime at the National Police Chiefs’ Council.

Cards saying “no Polish scum” have been passed around a Cambridge school. A halal butcher in Walsall was firebombed. A friend in Gloucester says pub chatter now switches effortlessly between football and complaints about “Pakis” and “blacks”.

Alan Anstead, from UK Race and Europe Network in London, is in no doubt about the cause of the spike in prejudice.

“People with racist intentions saw the referendum as giving them the opportunity to say what they wanted,” says Anstead. Many of the minorities he works with are worried, he says.

British prime minister David Cameron has condemned the rise in xenophobia, but others have been far more ambivalent.

Aaron Banks, a businessman who ploughed millions into the UK Independence Party and the Leave campaign, asked “What’s a [Polish Social and Cultural Centre] when it’s at home” on Twitter after racist graffiti was daubed on a Polish centre in London last weekend.

Primal fears

The Leave campaign played on the primal fears of working- class communities, left behind by decades of deindustralisation and years of grinding austerity. Boris Johnson implored voters to “take your country back”.

Nigel Farage said HIV-positive immigrants were overloading the NHS. The louder the Ukip leader shouted “breaking point” beside posters with queues of black and brown faces, the more voters believed him.

Even the brutal murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, which was supposed to presage a more respectful tone, did little to alter the intemperate language.

The uncivilised “air war” on broadcast media has fed into an even uglier tone on the ground. Language that was once considered unacceptable has now become acceptable.

After writing in favour of Remain, Tanja Bueltmann, a historian working in Northumbria University, was told to “shut up you German c***”. She was sent images of second World War tanks and was accused of being an “EU whore”.

“I’ve never been called a foreigner here before,” says Bueltmann. “I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been called a foreigner.”

“Start repatriation” demanded banners unfurled at a recent demonstration by the far-right National Front in Newcastle.

Referendums are black-and- white affairs. You are either on one side or the other; there is no middle ground.

But the Brexit referendum was far more divisive than that. The “other” is always an easy scapegoat, especially for power-hungry populists.

Britain has a long history of racism. Campaigners fear that even once the current spike in hate crimes drops, the new normal could be a general increase. “The referendum has legitimised racist views for some people,” says Anstead.

Fewest foreigners

What is striking is that anti-immigrant sentiment is often most keenly felt in places with the fewest new arrivals.

Travelling through northern England recently, I was struck by how monochrome many city centres were. I often asked voters who talked about immigration whether the numbers of arrivals had increased.

“No, but I’ve seen them on TV,” was a frequent reply. In politics, perception often trumps reality.

Britain is not on the cusp of race war. Hundreds sent flowers to the Polish centre attacked over the weekend. Similar kindnesses have been repeated up and down Britain.

But Brexit has given succour to bigotry. What was initially billed as a referendum about democracy – the United Kingdom regaining sovereignty from an over-powerful Brussels – became something very different and far darker.

The fear now is that the intolerance it has injected into the British body politic manifests itself in even more morbid symptoms as the UK swaps Europe for Little England.