Most of us, reflecting on our experience of previous decades, would surely accept that the UK has become a more liberal and tolerant society. Women were more likely to suffer from domestic violence at home, harassment on their commute, and discrimination at work. Gay people found in prudent to stay in the closet.

Racism was far more prevalent. As a schoolboy, I remember the anger some of my black classmates expressed about the degrading treatment they experienced from the police. These were ordinary, non-political boys. I had no reason to disbelieve their accounts. There was a downward spiral in community relations. My school was in Pimlico, but some of the pupils commuted up from Brixton. During the Brixton Riots in 1981, they tended to be on the side of the rioters – arguing that the police were to blame.

I suppose we all have our own anecdotes reflecting changing social attitudes during our lifetimes. But the broad narrative sweep would be shared. The UK also compares pretty favourably in the level of harmony that we maintain compared to virtually any other country one can think of. The paradox is that we don’t boast about this very much. It would be a bit chauvinistic to boast too loudly about how we are the least chauvinistic nation on the planet.

Yet while these general conclusions would be difficult to dispute, there is a contention that recently we have regressed. The claim is that the vote in the EU referendum increased division and emboldened bigotry. The next day, for instance, Gavin Barwell tweeted that he was proud that Croydon and London had voted Remain and so “rejected the politics of hate and division.” (He went on to work for Theresa May. Given his lack of enthusiasm for Brexit perhaps it is unsurprising that it has taken so long to be delivered.)

The message was put forward repeatedly that EU nationals settled in the UK would find their status at risk after Brexit. They were told that the referendum result meant they were no longer welcome. Yet invariably it was the Remainers who put this interpretation on the motives for those who voted for Brexit.

When it comes to people’s feelings, and the national mood, there is limit to how much we can get from statistics. But there have been a couple of assertions put forward which can be tested. The first was that even, before Brexit takes place, our reputation as a hostile country would cause an exodus of those from other EU states. Secondly, that “hate crime” would increase. The xenophobic genie would be out of the bottle. That David Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum to avert “unleashing demons” would have the opposite outcome.

The Office for National Statistics produces a Quarterly Report on Migration. Between September 2017 and September 2018, 202,000 citizens from other EU countries immigrated to the UK and about 145,000 left.  That means an overall increase in the number living here from other EU countries; “net immigration”, of around 57,000. The earlier year, September 2016 to September 2017, there were 220,000 new EU arrivals with 130,000 leaving. So net migration of 90,000. The latest provisional estimate suggests net immigration from the EU in the year to June 2019 of 48,000. The upshot is that there are a couple of hundred thousand more people living here from other EU states now, than at the time of the referendum.

Suggestions of a mass exodus, or of new arrivals being afraid to come, have proved wide of the mark. It is true that the rate of increase has slowed. But even that may be due to other factors. Most Europeans countries are richer than in 2016 – wages are higher, unemployment is lower. That is probably a more significant factor.

The figures for the number of National Insurance numbers allocated to adult overseas nationals to September 2019 are recorded for each country, which brings this point home. It shows 43,000 from Poland, down by ten per cent from the previous year. Far more registrations were from Romanians – at 139,000. Why? Probably as the Polish economy has been growing at over four per cent a year. The top rate of income tax there is 32 per cent. Poles under the age of 26 who earn less than 85,528 zloty (£18,519) a year do not have to pay income tax at all. So they are keeping, and tempting back, more of their young people. The unemployment rate there is only 3.2 per cent. In Spain it 14.2 per cent. No surprise that the number of Spaniards coming here to look for work has increased.

Then there has been the widely reported claims that the EU referendum has caused an increase in racist incidents and “hate crimes.” Media prominence may have given the impression that there has been – graffiti that might previously have been ignored has been featured in news reports.

But is that a genuine trend? For a start, the criteria of whether an offence was motivated by hate is purely down to whether the victim believes it to have been. As Mark Wallace has noted, the level of police recorded hate crime rose in 2013/14 and 2014/15 (before the referendum took place) during a period when crime generally was falling. On the other hand, the figures did show a “spike” after the EU referendum – as well as after the 2017 terrorist incidents. For whatever reason, it also tends to show a spike in the summer months.

But there is another way of measuring crime – the Crime Survey for England and Wales. This offers a different indication:

“According to the combined 2015/16 to 2017/18 CSEW11, there were around 184,000 incidents of hate crime a year. This represents around three per cent of all CSEW crime (6,096,000 incidents), a similar level to the proportion in the police recorded crime series (2%). While the apparent fall between this latest estimate and the previous one (covering years 2012/13 to 2014/15) was not statistically significant, trends over the longer term suggest reductions in the number of hate crime incidents. This is in contrast to the upward trend in police recorded hate crime. There was a statistically significant fall in the number of hate crime incidents from 307,000 in the combined 2007/08 and 2008/09 CSEW to 184,000 in the combined 2015/16 to 2017/18 CSEW (a fall of 40% between these combined surveys). Over the same time period, there was a similar percentage fall (39%) in crime overall in the CSEW. The CSEW suggests, therefore, that hate crime has fallen at a similar rate to overall CSEW crime over this period.”

Another measure is on the number of prosecutions for hate crimes. The House of Commons Library has these figures:

  • 2015/16  saw 15,442 prosecutions (with 12,846 convictions).
  • 2016/17  saw 14,480 prosecutions (with 12,072 convictions).
  • 2017/18 saw 14,151 prosecutions (with 11,987 convictions).
  • 2018/19  saw 12,828 prosecutions (with  10,817 convictions).

Definitions are problematic. As Charles Moore has said it is hard to think of a serious crime that does not involve hate. If one category of hate is included then are other categories downplayed? Within the totals of classified hate crime there has been an alarming increase in incidents of anti-semitism, whch I don’t think anyone has linked to Brexit. There has also been a welcome reduction in the number of attacks on the disabled, where hatred is deemed to be factor. Again, no suggestions of any link to the referendum result.

Once we have waded through all the caveats, claims, and counter-claims, it ends up that we are the same generally decent, civilised people we were three years ago. That vote in 2016 was not a nativist impulse to retreat from the world. It was a confident democratic declaration that we can embrace the opportunities the world has to offer. That should be accepted as the motivation for the decision we made.

The way it has been caricatured is damaging. It is true that some racists have an eye for the main chance – when a news item can be used to inflame tensions they will take it. But far more significant is the scaremongering by so much of the media at home and abroad – as well as by those Remainer politicians so resistant to accepting the result. Many false claims have been made with such force and repetition that some have believed them. One of the best things about “getting Brexit done” will be that those anxieties can finally be disproved.