Not long after the shock European Union referendum result in 2016 there were reports of thugs tearing headscarves off the heads of Muslim women. “Fuck off to Poland” letters were posted through the doors of eastern Europeans. People were assaulted on public transport. And worse.
Police reported a surge in racially motivated hate crime. Many linked it to the xenophobic rhetoric of the pro-Brexit campaign, with its naked and rather desperate scaremongering about refugees and Turkey’s supposedly imminent accession to the bloc.
Pro-Brexit media organisations sought to rubbish the link, even the statistical reality of the spike itself.
But it was clearly there in the official figures. And the consensus, accepted even by the Home Office, is that it was not just an artefact of a greater willingness of people to report such incidents to the police.
So why did it happen? Did the British public’s attitudes suddenly become more hostile overnight towards immigrants and ethnic minorities? It’s not impossible. But it’s likely that something more subtle happened.
A new economic paper by Facundo Albornoz, Jake Bradley and Silvia Sonderegger, all from Nottingham University, explains the disturbing spike through a framework of a theory of “social norms” and “information shock”.
“The referendum revealed that anti-immigrant sentiment was more widespread in the UK than was previously believed,” argue the authors. “Following the referendum, people who had so far concealed or repressed their private views for fear of appearing politically incorrect felt empowered and started adopting a behaviour more in line with their true preferences.”
Somewhat counterintuitively, they discovered that the biggest spikes in hate crime tended to occur not in areas that voted strongly for Leave but in majority Remain areas. A one percentage point increase in the Remain vote of an area was associated with a 0.5 per cent increase in the level of local hate crime.
Why would that be? The researchers hypothesise that latent xenophobes in Remain areas had been influenced by local norms about acceptable behaviour. The surprise effect of the national result was thus greater, making them more likely than those in Leave areas to act on their worst impulses.
The results are not conclusive. There needs to be more evidential support, perhaps through polling, for the contention that people’s views on immigration are shaped by local, rather than national, behavioural norms. And it’s not clear why a bigger information shock for a bigot would mean a higher subsequent propensity for violence.
Yet the paper’s argument seems broadly credible. And it’s a useful attempt to explore the mechanism through which the “normalisation” of bigotry by mainstream political discourse in broadcast studios and conference halls can translate into violence and intimidation on the streets.
Economists sometimes assume that people have fixed “preferences” as individuals. This can be a useful simplifying assumption for modelling behaviour. But we all intuitively know that doesn’t always hold. We can be influenced by those around us. Those influences interact with our preferences.
It’s notable that there was a similar spike in hate crime in the US after Donald Trump’s surprise election victory. This followed a campaign, of course, in which he had, among other things, called for a “shutdown” of all Muslim immigration and labelled Mexicans as rapists.
What are the lessons? Well, it tells us to be extremely wary of upsetting anti-racist norms.
Some, like David Goodhart of the think tank Policy Exchange and Eric Kaufmann of London’s Birkbeck College, have been proposing an official recognition, even promotion, of the “legitimate group interest” of white people.
This is based on the theory that the white majority in the UK is economically and socially neglected due to an official fixation on multiculturalism and diversity – and that this has created a “white grievance” which has been fuelling right-wing populism.
Even if one accepts this theory – and there are myriad grounds for challenging it – there are dangers in accentuating the political “salience” of a majority group’s ethnic identity.
Encourage people to believe they belong to a sprawling “white” group with a “legitimate majority grievance” and they are liable to start behaving as if race is the key political dividing line, rather than issues such as, for instance, income inequality or social class.
Turning Britain into a country like Kenya, where politics is a dominated by ethnicity, is not an attractive vision. And the Nottingham empirical work on how bigoted underlying attitudes can be brought to the surface by a shift in political rhetoric reinforces the case for caution.
That will draw accusations of double standards, of course. Why is it acceptable for politicians to talk about the ethnic identity and needs of minorities but not that of the majority? A large part of the answer lies in the simple reality of inequalities of physical vulnerability between groups in our society – something so distressingly underlined in those weeks after the referendum.