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Did the vote for Brexit lead to a rise in hate crime?

Some have seen the UK’s vote to leave the European Union as a ‘trigger’ event, perhaps giving would-be perpetrators of racial and religious hate crime the idea that many people share their extreme views and increasing the probability of criminal incidents.

The UK’s referendum vote to leave the European Union (EU) was followed by an increase in race and religious hate crime of 15-25% in England and Wales.

Hate crime is defined as ‘any criminal offence which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice towards someone based on a personal characteristic’ (Home Office, 2017). It is categorised by race or ethnicity, religion or beliefs, sexual orientation, disability and transgender identity.

The rise in race and religious hate crime mostly took place in the first three months after the referendum and was relatively larger in areas that voted for Brexit. While the increase coincided with the referendum, it could have been correlated with the vote itself, rather than having been triggered by it. Specifically, it is possible that other economic and political factors resulted in both the Brexit vote and the changes in hate crime incidents.

The vote may also have led to increased reporting of hate crimes by victims and witnesses, or better recording by the police. Both trends could have been further amplified by traditional and social media. Recent research uses various data sources on hate crimes – such as data collected from the UK police forces by Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and/or data collected by the Community Safety Partnership (CSP) areas – and various analytical methods to eliminate these other potential channels.

The research suggests that the Brexit referendum triggered an increase in hate crime immediately after the vote (Carr et al, 2020). Similar recent studies highlight the rise in hate crime after the referendum, but focus less on the underlying mechanisms (Schilter, 2020; Devine, 2018).

Although the estimated effects seem considerable, a 15-25% rise in recorded hate crime translates into approximately 2,000 additional hate crimes in the third quarter of 2016 in England and Wales (Carr et al, 2020). But this finding is likely to understate the effects of the referendum, as typically only half of hate crimes are ever reported (Home Office, 2020). To put this number in perspective, international hate crimes on a monthly level in 2016 hovered around 300 in Germany (xenophobic hate crimes) and over 400 in the United States.

Did areas that voted heavily for Brexit experience a larger rise in hate crimes?

According to one study, the increase in hate crime differed between the pro-Leave and pro-Remain areas (Albornoz et al, 2020). Their evidence suggests that hate crimes rose more in areas that voted to remain in the EU. The logic for this is that since behaviour is dictated by individuals’ preferences – as well as by a desire to conform to social norms ­– areas that voted to remain experienced a greater ‘surprise’ by the referendum result, and this may have led to an increase in hate crime.

In contrast, it can also be shown that hate crimes rose more in areas that voted to leave the EU (Carr et al, 2020). Figure 1 shows the actual and ‘synthetic’ racial and religious hate crimes (RRHC) in pro-Leave (Panel A) and pro-Remain (Panel B) areas. Data from other crime categories are used to construct a weighted combination (‘synthetic control crimes’) of these crimes to estimate what would have happened in the absence of the referendum (a ‘counterfactual’ scenario). The control is constructed in order to make the true RRHC and the synthetic RRHC as similar as possible prior to 2016.

The pre-referendum trends of the actual and synthetic RRHC follow each other closely in the three years running up to the referendum, with no significant deviations occurring in either panel before the vote (see Figure 1). After the referendum, in July 2016, there is a significant visual jump in the trend of the actual RRHC (pink line) relative to the synthetic RRHC (navy line).

This jump is more pronounced in pro-Leave areas. One possible explanation is that there were more people in pro-Leave areas who sympathised with, and then acted on, the anti-immigration sentiment revealed by the referendum. But it should be emphasised that it is not necessarily the pro-Leave voters who committed hate crimes following the vote.

Figure 1: The impact of the Brexit referendum on hate crime in pro-leave and pro-Remain areas

Panel A: Pro-Leave areas
Panel B: Pro-Remain areas
Note: RRHC - racial and religious hate crimes; Actual RRHC - actual data; Synthetic RRHC - comparison group. Source: CSP

Which groups have been most affected by changing patterns of hate crime?

Evidence shows that the increase in hate crime varied depending on the proportion of young men in the local area (Carr et al, 2020). This suggests that young men could be more susceptible to public information shocks than other population groups.

Hate crimes cause social unrest, whereby certain ethnic groups do not feel welcome, hence they feel unsafe in a particular community. There is also some evidence to suggest that hate crimes increased more in areas with a low percentage of minority and migration populations (Carr et al, 2020). The larger shocks in low minority areas grant support to ‘contact theory’, which argues that if individuals have more (positive) contact with minorities, they are less likely to view these groups as a threat or an ‘unknown entity’ (Allport, 1954; Rozo and Urbina, 2020).

It is important to note that it is difficult to connect the political disposition of an area with the level of hate crimes, as minorities may choose to not to live in such areas. This is clear from a study of the 2009 Swiss referendum vote on the construction of new minarets and its impact on the location choices of migrants in a traditional destination country (Slotwinski and Stutzer, 2015).

The researchers report: ‘The symbolic restriction of prohibiting the construction of new minarets was heavily discussed and interpreted as a signal of limited openness towards foreigners.’ The result of the referendum, which like the Brexit vote was contrary to the prediction of the polls (Brexit poll tracker; Swiss vote to ban construction of minarets on mosques), resulted in large drops in the probability that foreigners moved to municipalities that voted against the construction of new minarets. Research by Daniel Müller for Austria has similar results: foreigners sort into communities with more positive attitudes towards migrants.

Contact theory suggests that with sufficient positive contact, individuals are less likely to either commit a hate crime at any point, or be induced to commit a crime after a shock event. As such, one would expect to find both higher levels and shocks of hate crimes in low minority areas.

Could other factors explain the post-referendum increase in hate crime?

There is strong evidence that racial or cultural prejudice is an important component of attitudes towards immigration (Hall, 2014; Dustmann and Preston, 2007) and that this is restricted to immigration from countries with ethnically different populations (Dustmann and Preston, 2007).

There is also suggestive evidence that media – both traditional and social – played a role in increasing hate crime after the Brexit referendum. But these effects are rather small (Carr et al, 2020). Nonetheless, both traditional and social media can instigate acts of bias through perpetuating or legitimising stereotypes and, as a result, contribute to increases in hate crime (Hall, 2014). Recent research shows that social media can lead to a rise in hate crime (Müller and Schwarz, 2019; Bursztyn et al, 2020; Ivandi? et al, 2019).

What do we know about the effects of other shock events on hate crime?

Various studies consider the effect of terrorist attacks – such as 9/11 in the United States and the London 7/7 bombings – on subsequent hate crimes against Muslims, Arabs and others perceived to be Middle Eastern (Swahn et al, 2003; Deloughery et al, 2012; Hanes and Machin, 2014). For example, one study looks at the effect of international jihadi terrorist attacks on local anti-Muslim hate crimes in the Greater Manchester area (Ivandi? et al, 2019).

In these cases – which are most often related to crimes of anti-religious or anti-immigrant nature – the subsequent hate crimes are categorised as ‘retaliation’. The perpetrator is motivated by a desire to retaliate against an attack that they perceive as being aimed at ‘their group’ or ‘their community’.

As in the case of terrorist attacks, unexpected results of contentious elections or referendums have the potential to influence people’s views and their perception of social norms. Research on hate crime has increasingly focused on the effects of elections, especially those with an undertone of xenophobia or anti-immigrant sentiment.

For example, some studies of political events consider changes in hate crime patterns following the election of Donald Trump in 2016 (Sims Edwards and Rushin, 2019; Levin and Grisham, 2016; Jenkins, 2017), while others consider the role of additional factors such as social media in the escalation of hate crimes (Müller and Schwarz, 2019).


Increase in hate crimes after the Brexit referendum suggest that the result created a public information shock, which in turn led to a re-evaluation of society’s tolerance towards racist action and induced some individuals to commit a hate crime. While the temporary nature of the hate crime rise suggests that social norms can change quickly, this change might not be long lasting.

Although social media played a role in fuelling some of the increase in hate crime, there is also evidence of social media campaigns that rallied against the rise (#SafetyPin campaign). Furthermore, just over a month after the referendum, the government announced that prosecutors would be urged to push for tougher sentences for those committing hate crimes (BBC News, 2016). Additional funding for protective security measures at vulnerable faith institutions was also pledged.

This combination of measures raised the cost of committing hate crime and in turn increased the cost of breaking the social norm. It may explain why the effect has not lasted.

Where can I find out more?

  • Brexit and hate crime: why was the rise more pronounced in areas that voted Remain? Facundo Albornoz and colleagues suggest that because the referendum was a source of new information about society’s overall preferences over immigration, it enabled those holding anti-immigrant sentiments but living in areas that are generally supportive of diversity to externalise their views.
  • Trump and racism: what do the data say? Evidence summarised by the Brookings Institution.
  • Do Trump tweets spur hate crimes? Scientific American summarises a 2018 study, which makes a strong case that the then president’s Twitter activity encouraged anti-Muslim crime.
  • In Germany, online hate speech has real-world consequences: The Economist summarises a 2018 study, which finds that anti-refugee rhetoric on Facebook is correlated with physical attacks.
  • Jihadi attacks, media, and local anti-Muslim hate crime: Ria Ivandic and colleagues at LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance analyse data from Greater Manchester Police, which reveal a spike in Islamophobic hate crime and incidents following ten international jihadi attacks.

Current research projects investigating changing patterns of hate crime

  • Demos looks at hate speech on Twitter following the referendum.
  • HateLab is a global hub for data and insight into hate speech and crime, including work on the rise in Brexit-related hate crime.
  • Stop Hate UK is one of the leading national organisations working to challenge all forms of hate crime and discrimination, based on any aspect of an individual’s identity. Stop Hate UK provides independent, confidential and accessible reporting and support for victims, witnesses and third parties.

Who are experts on this question?

Authors: Joel Carr, Joanna Clifton-Sprigg, Jonathan James, Suncica Vujic
Photo by Askar Karimullin from iStock
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