People are responsible for the attitudes they hold and the crimes they commit, but this does not mean that the state and the media do not have a part to play in the rise in racist and xenophobic attacks across England and Wales.
Other than in Scotland, where reported incidents of hate crime have fallen to their lowest level since 2003, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and other racially motivated assaults – both verbal and physical – have risen to an all-time high across the United Kingdom. Statistics published by the National Police Chiefs’ Council have shown that over July and August 2016 reports have been up on average 31 percent, week on week, from the same period last year – a clear spike in such attacks. In the past few days Britain’s recently appointed Prime Minister Theresa May has been forced to call Beata Szydło, her Polish counterpart, to explain why Polish nationals in England are finding themselves increasing targeted as the victims of racist and xenophobic attacks, and it is striking that similar calls have not been made to leaders in majority Muslim countries.
May is reported to have assured Szydło that “racism has no place in British society,” but the statistics are telling another story. The correlation between these figures and the Brexit campaign and the 23 June vote are undeniable. Brexit has made a difference. Does this mean that we blame Brexit and the highly racist tone of the Brexiteers’ campaign for this upsurge in violence? Yes and no. People, not political ideas, commit acts of violence and ultimately people must be held responsible for their actions, but this does not absolve politicians and the mainstream media in the UK from the part they play in legitimising racist opinion.
Tabloid newspapers like the Daily Express and politicians like Nigel Farage and his UKIP Party have routinely manipulated and misrepresented facts so as to present immigration as a threat to the security of Britain. Even the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, in his use of dehumanising language to describe Middle Eastern and North African refugees, has let it be known that this is the accepted attitude of the state’s powerful élite. Ignoring the crucial contribution of immigrants to Britain’s services and industry, “foreigners” have been presented by the most powerful and influential in UK society as a threat to the welfare system, to jobs, and to the peace of the country.
Of course this rhetoric will frighten people and motivate them to act in the national interest. Violent people and racists have always existed, and they are active in all walks of life. The difference now, after Brexit, is that the state itself has provided them with what appears to them to be an excuse and a legitimisation for acting out their hatred. When the nation and society take a dim view of the behaviour of violent racists, as is the case in Scotland, these thugs remain under their rocks and find it more difficult to radicalise others to their cause. In England they are effectively being celebrated as the new patriots. Racism and bigotry have come to be an integral part of British Nationalism.