Six days after the EU referendum I wrote about the assertion, already commonplace at that point, that the Leave vote was responsible for a rise in racist attacks. It was undeniable that disgusting crimes had been committed, but it seemed to me then that an injustice was being perpetrated – some were wrongly trying to suggest that the perpetrators were representative of Leave voters, or even that their actions somehow served as proof that the referendum result was in itself a racist event, and therefore invalid. At that time, it was already clear that that narrative had some problems.

Now, 15 weeks after the referendum, we’re in a position to explore the topic with much more data. Did the vote really, as both The Guardian and The Independent claimed, lead to “a lasting rise in hate crime”?

First, it’s worth noting that some of the statistics that have been circulating are barely better than anecdotal evidence. One headline-grabbing claim was that hate crime has risen 57 per cent since the referendum. It was used extensively in the media a few days after the referendum, and yet the Daily Mail has reported that the number is drawn not from official crime reports, but is entirely based on a rise in reports entered into the ‘True Vision’ information website. The 57 per cent increase cited was from a total of 54 reports to 85 reports, which is hardly a quantity from which any meaningful statistical insight could be gathered. Indeed, the National Police Chiefs’ Council press release which revealed the figures noted clearly that: “This should not be read as a national increase in hate crime of 57 per cent”.

That rather important caveat didn’t stop the statistic being widely misused in exactly that way, though. It was wrongly portrayed as a national increase in hate crime immediately after the referendum, including by the BBC, and as time dragged on and the four days in question receded, the figure didn’t seem to die – it was simply asserted that it applied to the period “since the referendum”. Even now, it routinely pops up on social media – still dashing around the world as the truth struggles into its proverbial trousers.

Reliable numbers?

There are official police numbers of actual crime reports with a more solid, rather than anecdotal, basis. Given media interest and public concern, the NPCC asked forces to compile weekly reports of hate crimes in each area, and published them centrally. Those reports (compiled here by The Guardian) revealed that the number of hate crimes recorded from the week before the referendum until 17th August had indeed increased compared to the previous year – in total during those nine weeks the police registered reports of 14,397 hate crimes, compared to 10,883 in the same period in 2015.

Even those numbers, though, are not quite as self-explanatory as they might first appear. While overall crime has been falling in recent years, hate crime has risen year on year quite reliably (as Left Foot Forward pointed out here) – it rose from 2013 to 2014 and from 2014 to 2015, so it would be an error to treat a further rise in 2016 as wholly and inevitably linked to the referendum.

A “lasting rise”?

There was undeniably a spike in recorded hate crimes following the referendum, over and above the trend for rising reports from previous years (of which, more in a moment). But was it a “lasting rise in hate crime”, as was claimed – is this a sustained trend which has become the new normal?

Again the police contradict the media narrative – by late July they were reporting that the rise seemed to be abating, and on 7th September the NPCC announced that:

“We have seen continued decreases in reports of hate crimes to forces and these reports have now returned to formerly seen levels for 2016. For this reason, we will return to our previous reporting procedures and will no longer be requiring weekly updates from forces.”

In other words, by the week of the 5th-12th August, the rise in recorded hate crimes had returned to a rate which those gathering the statistics believed to be the normal trend. The spike had passed in six weeks – not the common definition of “a lasting increase”. Again, some newspapers’ preference for a dire narrative seemed to trump the hard facts of the matter.

The meaning of hate crime

Nonetheless, that “horrible spike”, as Bernard Hogan Howe called it, is undoubtedly there in the figures. More hate crimes were recorded in that six week period. What does that mean?

It’s important to understand exactly what constitutes a hate crime in the UK. Unusually, the decision of whether an offence was motivated by hate (on grounds of race, sexuality, religion or age) lies purely in the hands of the victim. In the words of the Mail:

Under their official guidance, hate crime is now deemed to be ‘any criminal offence which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice.’ Proof of such intent is not necessarily required, the guidance adds: ‘Evidence of … hostility is not required … [The] perception of the victim, or any other person, is the defining factor.’ In essence, this means that anyone, anywhere, can force officers to treat something as a hate crime. All it takes is a vague ‘perception’.

The intention of that guidance is to make it as easy as possible to record genuine hate crimes; an understandable aim, but the knock-on effect is to remove any room for scepticism or even evidence. One disturbing example of how the law is sometimes abused can be read in Kevin O’Sullivan’s account in The Spectator of his experience after being falsely accused of a homophobic hate crime.

Issues of justice aside, the non-requirement of evidence for registration of hate crimes introduces an obvious element of doubt into the question of quite how reliable these official statistics are for tracking the scale of the problem. It also produces statistical oddities: officially there are more hate crimes each year in London than in the whole of the United States – a true ‘fact’ according to the official statistics of the Met and the US, but obviously a flawed comparison when one deploys common sense (or a brief consideration of how many hate crimes Donald Trump would be deemed to be committing in even one of his speeches if he were to deliver it on British soil).

Is Brexit to blame?

Even if one assumes that every single report registered as a hate crime is accurate, that is evidence of correlation with the period around the referendum, not causation. Might there be any other reasons for the spike?

One is supplied up front by the police themselves: “we believe that greater awareness and confidence in the police response has contributed to increases in reporting in comparison to last year.” Police forces are certainly working harder to increase the reporting rates of genuine hate crimes, which may account for some of the year-on-year increase. It’s easy to see how “greater awareness” of the issue would also drive more reports – after Jimmy Savile’s crimes were reported, the number of child sexual exploitation cases which were reported rose dramatically. Given the wall-to-wall coverage of alleged hate crimes in the aftermath of the referendum, it would be odd if there hadn’t been a similar effect.

It is important, given all of the above, that we retain a degree of scepticism about some of the more alarmist headlines in recent weeks. But even after taking into account the less than robust rules for recording hate crimes, and the impact of increased awareness, it seems clear that the number of hate crimes did rise – and the rate of that rise accelerated for a period after the EU referendum. What of the claim that this must be due entirely or largely to Brexit – revealing that the Leave vote was in itself racist?

One must be careful about ascribing motivations to crimes based on broad brush assumptions or personal preference (not least because various of these offences are still being investigated, and it would be contempt of court to do so). Events in the news certainly can directly inspire hate crimes – but as an officer of the NPCC’s Hate Crime Group reminded the BBC, the period in question featured terrorist attacks in Nice and Munich, not just the aftermath of the referendum.

I wrote in my first article that it was an uncomfortable likelihood that some who already harboured racist and hateful views felt somehow emboldened to act on them by the referendum result, but that the idea that ordinary citizens had been converted into violent racists by the referendum seemed implausible. That view has since been bolstered by reports of a particularly notable rise in homophobic hate crime. Even if you believe that a democratic decision to regain sovereignty, including over immigration policy, was inherently racist (and you would be wrong to do so), how can the Leave campaign or its victory be seen in any way to contribute to a rise in the hatred of LGBT people?

It seems far more likely that a core of existing neo-Nazis and others with similarly hateful views have taken the result as some kind of validation for their wider, poisonous opinions. As Hope Not Hate themselves told The Independent:

“For a few people, the Brexit decision was a chance to vent deep-seated hatred of others: this is completely deplorable and perpetrators need to face the full force of the law. Our own research doesn’t suggest, though, that as a nation we are any more racist than we were before. Nor that the far right is in any ascendancy.”

How to lance the boil

If so, then we all have a responsibility to first reject and then crush such people. We Leavers in particular ought to feel a particular need to make it bluntly clear to any racist or other thug trying to hijack our cause that our decision is ours – for democracy, for independence, and, yes, for democratic control of immigration policy – and not an endorsement in any way of their sick loathing. We must also battle at every opportunity those on our own side who, through naivety or cynicism, give them succour. If we fail to do so it will be us, our beliefs and our movement which will be forever tarnished by unjust association.

The previous and current governments also left a gap which also offered some hope to such people. During the referendum, prominent Remain campaigners shamefully suggested that after Brexit, EU citizens would be “sent home” – something the Leave campaigns never suggested – and at least one Minister carefully refused to rule out such a possibility. Since the new Prime Minister took office, her Government has also been far too slow to offer reassurance that those EU citizens already in the country will be allowed to say. Any racists fantasising about deportations could well have read into those pronouncements and silences the message that they were getting what they wanted.

That disgusting fantasy is now being shattered as Cabinet Ministers confirm that EU citizens will indeed be allowed to stay on the basis of their acquired rights, just as Leave campaigners argued during the referendum campaign. The news is belated, but still welcome. Perhaps if it had been confirmed some months ago, some of this pain could have been avoided.