Post-Brexit, the U.K. is becoming a hotbed of far-right violence

Hate crimes and Islamophobia are rising, and security services are overstretched.

A member of the British National Party (BNP), holds a Union Jack during a demonstration as anti-fascist demonstrators, in the background, shout slogans in a counter demonstration in central London. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
A member of the British National Party (BNP), holds a Union Jack during a demonstration as anti-fascist demonstrators, in the background, shout slogans in a counter demonstration in central London. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

In the wake of the Brexit vote, there has been a worrying rise in far-right attitudes and racially-motivated attacks in the U.K., leaving minorities fearful.

On Tuesday the British Home Office — equivalent to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — released a report showing that there had been a 29 percent increase in hate crimes over the last year, from 62,518 in 2015-2016 to 80,393 in 2016-2017.

“The increase…is thought to reflect…a genuine rise in hate crime around the time of the EU referendum,” the report stated, adding the caveat that police have also made “ongoing improvements” in recording hate crimes over the last few years. The increase marked the biggest rise since the Home Office began recording the offences in 2011; notably, the crime numbers spiked in the aftermath of major attacks, but the biggest increase from April 2013 to March 2017 occurred just after the Brexit vote.

“I think they’ll continue to rise,” Professor Paul Iganski, a hate crimes expert at Lancaster University told The New York Times. “As we draw closer to the [Brexit] deadline, and as negotiations get tougher, the climate is going to get worse.”

Further evidence of rising xenophobia was seen in a separate survey released last month that showed that over half of all Britons supported the racial profiling of Muslims for security reasons, and most also believed that Muslims had failed to integrate into British society. Only 23 percent of respondents said that Arab migration to the U.K. had been at all beneficial.

The poll, commissioned by the Council for Arab-British Understanding and Arab News, also found that attitudes differed significantly based upon whether respondents voted Leave or Remain in the EU referendum last year. Among those who had voted for Brexit, 80 percent believed Muslims had “failed to integrate in Western societies”, compared with only 45 percent of those who voted to stay in the EU.

Combined, these reports not only show that racist and Islamophobic attacks are increasing within the U.K., but that the attitudes that help propel them are also widespread — and that Brexit has helped normalize them. To make matters worse, Andrew Parker, the head of  Britain’s domestic security service MI5, warned on Tuesday that the country is facing a “multidimensional threat”, the highest he’s seen in his 34-year career.

Since June 2016, there have been five successful attacks within the U.K., three of them by religious extremists and two by far-right extremists. Among the more high-profile incidents were the murder of MP Jo Cox in June 2016 and the van attack on Finsbury Park mosque in London this past June. There have also been numerous preemptive arrests, such as an incident in September when four British Army soldiers were arrested on suspicion of being members of the banned neo-Nazi group National Action.

A simmering level of tension also remains in Northern Ireland. According to the Belfast Telegraph, on Tuesday, police in Belfast arrested four men “under terrorism legislation.” The men were suspected of being part of the Ulster Defense Association, a right-wing loyalist paramilitary force responsible for hundreds of deaths during the Troubles, the conflict in Northern Ireland that lasted from 1968 to 1998. There are also serious concerns that when Brexit is implemented, a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which is a member of the EU, could return and further destabilize Northern Ireland’s security situation.

While the U.K. has not yet followed the example of other European countries in moving toward a right-wing, populist government, the Islamophobic attitudes revealed in last month surveys, coupled with the rise of hate crimes and an overstretched security service, show how far-right attitudes have become normalized in a post-Brexit Britain.