Politicians have a voice and the things that we say and do can shape the way society thinks about the issues of the day. That is a benefit, but it is also a responsibility. Wherever possible, we should use our platform wisely to point the way to a better society.
During the EU referendum, some politicians were not wise or careful, fanning the flames on immigration in order to generate votes for the leave campaign. Nigel Farage’s “breaking point” poster was a low point in a campaign that I feel had no high point. A tactical decision was made to turn what should have been a vote on the EU into a vote on immigration.
A UN body has commented that British politicians helped to fuel a steep rise in racist hate crimes during and after the EU referendum campaign. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said:
“the Committee is deeply concerned that the referendum campaign was marked by divisive, anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric, and that many politicians and prominent political figures not only failed to condemn such rhetoric, but also created and entrenched prejudices, thereby emboldening individuals to carry out acts of intimidation and hate towards ... minority communities and people who are visibly different.”
Hate crime in England has gone up as a result. In the week before and after the vote on 23 June, a year-on-year increase of around 42 per cent was recorded. Jon Burnett, a researcher at the Institute of Race Relations, said:
“The upsurge in attacks against eastern Europeans should come as no surprise, given the way that they have been portrayed repeatedly as scroungers, cheats and, ultimately, threats. This depiction, which intensified in the build-up to the referendum, of course predated it. The hate crimes are a product of a politically constructed climate which has been years in the making.”
Members should contrast that with the actions of the Scottish Government, before and after the EU referendum, to make clear that EU citizens are welcome. On the day after the referendum, the First Minister said to EU nationals who live in Scotland:
“you remain welcome here, Scotland is your home and your contribution is valued.”
There seems to be no evidence that the increase in hate crime in England is being replicated in Scotland, but I sound a note of caution. As the independent advisory group on hate crime, prejudice and community cohesion said in its report, some victims simply do not want to report crimes to the police. I have anecdotal evidence of that. A family business in my constituency recently received a series of anonymous letters telling the family to go home. Family members have also experienced people saying that to them in person on the street. They have not reported any of that to the police and they told a neighbouring shop owner, “It will pass.”
The independent advisory group reported:
“many people who experience hatred and prejudice on a daily basis said that it would be impossible to report them all to the police. Many participants reported that people subject to repeated incidents of prejudice or hate crime internalised such behaviour as a ‘normal’ experience of everyday life and developed coping strategies to deal with these that do not include contact with Justice agencies or support services.”
Police Scotland is working on encouraging victims to report incidents directly, through a form on its website, or through a network of third-party reporting centres that it supports and maintains.
The independent advisory group said:
“The Scottish Government continues to articulate a clear commitment to building a positive country which celebrates diversity, and the authorities are committed to taking hate crime seriously and to responding to it. ”
It also said:
“The global and media context is a crucial driver shaping the perception of safety for particular communities (such as Muslim or Jewish communities). Experiences of and anxiety about hate crime were both heightened during or following particularly high profile international events”.
“the public narrative around migrants and asylum had significant consequences for people in local communities.”
That underlines the point that, although the Scottish Government and its partners are committed to advancing equality and eradicating prejudice, by strengthening the law, running education programmes and working towards a situation in which all police and fire service recruits receive equalities training, the wider context is not under the Scottish Government’s control.
Comments, speeches and leaflets from politicians create a climate that has real consequences for communities. I hope that the xenophobic rhetoric that is emanating from UK political discourse ends now, before more harm is done.