Whilst it voted to Leave the European Union, the UK remains one of the most tolerant countries on the European continent.
Following the Brexit referendum vote, it is easy to find claims about what Guardian associate editor Hugh Muir calls “intolerant post-Brexit Britain".
As “Brexit and intolerance and hate became intertwined”, there has been a “scourge of post-Brexit xenophobia” which has "gripped large sections of the Conservative Party and indeed the country as a whole", with rampant racism (‘a third of Black, Asian and minority ethnic people have been racially abused’), an "explosion of racist hate crime", and “increasing number of attacks on foreigners” in a country that is literally "hell on Earth" (according to Scottish National Party Member of the UK Parliament Joan McAlpine).
And this picture of an intolerant "hell on earth" UK is often contrasted against a tolerant “Europe” (which is often interchangeable with the European Union project). This is rarely backed up by any evidence - simply asserting that Europe is more tolerant than the UK often suffices for an argument, with bonus points for carrying the blue & gold flag.
I’d like to propose an alternative theory, one backed up by considerable evidence: that despite some tensions around the Brexit vote itself, the UK is a very tolerant society - certainly compared to many European states. It simply chose to leave a transnational political project called the European Union. That doesn’t automatically make it intolerant towards its own citizens, or other Europeans, or the rest of the world, nor increase the likelihood that it will become any of these things in the future.
To support this theory I've taken several metrics that are related to the question of "tolerance": attitudes to refugees, immigration, religious and ethnic minorities, gay rights, freedom of speech, democratic values and how extreme the political climate is and then compared the UK's performance to other major states in Europe.
The picture that emerges is of a society that, while obviously not perfect, is one of the most open and tolerant in Europe. In other contexts (e.g. if the Brexit vote had been won by Remain), this positive view of the UK would likely be being cheered on by the very same people now arguing that the UK has suddenly become a damp, grey island of intolerance and bigotry.
Ten indications of tolerance: the UK compared to Europe (Summary)
1. Refugees: The UK is one of the most tolerant countries in Europe in attitudes towards refugees (even though it does not accept the most refugees onto its territory). The UK views refugees as much less likely to cause terrorism, take jobs & benefits from locals, or cause more crime than many Europeans.
2. Humanitarian assistance funding for the Syria crisis: The UK is in the top 3 in Europe, and the largest funder of the UN agency dealing with the refugee crisis (UNOCHA).
3. Muslim immigration: The UK is the 2nd most tolerant in Europe and one of only two that wasn't in favour of a "Muslim ban"
4. Immigration in general: Whilst the UK is 16th out of 28 EU states in attitudes towards immigration in general, this is only slightly lower than the EU average and the UK has a top 5 attitude towards non-EU immigration.
5. Muslims, Jews and other minorities: The UK is one of the most tolerant in Europe towards Jews and the most tolerant in Europe towards Muslims.
6. Gays, Lesbians and Gay Marriage/Civil Unions: The UK is one of the most tolerant in Europe and easily in the top 5.
7. Freedom of Expression: The UK is by far the most tolerant in Europe in public attitudes towards being able to criticise government policies and express opinions without government restraint. It is way ahead of states like France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Poland. Note that these public attitudes don't measure actual legal protections or freedom of the press, where the UK is more restrictive (though still similar to, say France).
8. Migrant assimilation of democratic values: The UK is by far one of the most tolerant in Europe (using the April 2017 Turkish Presidential Powers Referendum as an example).
9. Extremism of political parties: The UK has no far left (outright communist) or far right (outright fascist) members of Parliament or government. This indicates a tolerant, healthy political system. This is unlike many European states who have outright Nazis or unrepentant fans of Stalin in many Parliaments across the continent.
10. Implicit racial bias: The UK has one of the lowest "implicit" racial bias scores in Europe, based on an online test of 288,076 Europeans carried out over 13 years between 2002-2015.
(Bonus): Donald Trump: Despite claims to the contrary in Europe, the UK is NOT a fan of The Donald (outside of a small constituency of UKIP supporters). In fact, the 2nd most popular politician in the UK may even be German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Two common counterarguments
Before going into more detail, its worth getting two of the most common post-Brexit counter arguments out of the way first. These supposedly “prove” - beyond any refutation - that the UK is actually intolerant instead, whatever the other attitudes listed above. These do have a grain of truth but do not prove anything of the sort.
Counterargument 1: "Hate Crimes are soaring" - hate crimes probably did rise post Brexit. But the largest contribution to this rise is likely to be increased reporting, rather than significantly more actual crimes occurring. The definition of a "hate crime" is also very problematic, and in two thirds of cases, “hate” is not proven in court. And unlike the UK, most other European states barely even record hate crimes, never mind investigate and prosecute them, so this is hardly solid ground to claim Europe is more “tolerant” than the UK. For more detail, see: Was there an explosion of "hate crime" after the Brexit referendum?
Counterargument 2: "Foreign staff are leaving the National Health Service (NHS) in droves" (due to xenophobia, racism etc.) - The NHS actually attracted and retained record numbers of foreign nationals during 2016. Whilst there has been more EU nurses leaving post-Brexit and less being hired, most of this effect is probably due to the introducing of stricter English language testing prior to the Brexit vote and other unrelated factors. It is almost impossible to reconcile a vision of Britain that is somehow racist to Lithuanians and Spanish, but not to Nigerians or Indians. And many European states have dramatically less foreign born staff than the UK (e.g. Poland, Italy). See: Are "record numbers" of foreign staff quitting the NHS due to Brexit "xenophobia"?
Ten indications of tolerance: the UK compared to Europe
The UK is one of the most tolerant countries in Europe.
According to a Spring 2016 Pew Research Poll of ten European states, when looking at attitudes towards increased likelihood of terrorism, the taking of jobs and social benefits, and contributions towards crime, the UK was one of the most tolerant countries in Europe.
The UK views refugees as much less likely to cause terrorism, take jobs & benefits from locals, or cause more crime than many of these European states. Pew's summary: “In the United Kingdom, by contrast [with others in Europe], views toward immigrants are more uniformly positive”:
2: Humanitarian assistance funding for the Syria crisis
The UK is one of the top 3 most generous states in Europe for funding humanitarian assistance in Syria and the surrounding countries.
The UK operates the Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Programme (VPRP) to give refuge in the U.K to Syrians affected by the civil war that are elderly, disabled or victims of sexual violence and torture - 5,400 have been given refuge at the end of 2016, with an aim of helping more (up to 20,000). Another ~2,000 Syrians a year are also granted asylum on top of these numbers. However, overall, the UK does have one of the lowest rates of refugees accepted into the country per capita in Europe (60 per 100,000 compared to an EU average of 260 in 2015).
So if, say, Germany and Sweden are taking in more refugees than the UK, then they are obviously more "tolerant", right? Not quite - this argument fails to take into account that the UK strategy is to fund programs to help people in the region, rather than encourage the vulnerable to undertake dangerous journeys into Europe (particularly at sea, where thousands have died).
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) is the main agency working in Syria, and its two main humanitarian programs are chronically underfunded. Every dollar spent in the region under these programs goes further and helps more people than every dollar spent in Europe (roughly, you can help 10-30 refugees in the region for every 1 resettled/helped in a rich western country).
And the region is where most of the people who need help actually are - with millions in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon who are bearing the brunt of the crisis. Put another way, as no government has unlimited funds, every 1 refugee you help in Europe is 10-30 you don’t help in the region.
The UK Home Office estimates that it costs around $30,000 in the first year to provide support for 1 refugee in the UK (£23,420). This compares to estimates of $1,000-$3,968 per refugee in the region, depending on whether you use World Bank figures for Jordan or UNHCR figures averaged across the region. Costs per refugee across Europe are similar to the UK's - Germany has revised its original year 1 estimate to provide for around 800,000 migrants & refugees up 35% to €23 billion (€28,750) and Norway says its costs are $29,295 per refugee in the first year. This is why Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron's call for the UK to admit another 50,000 Syrian refugees is less moral than it appears - there isn't an unlimited pot of money, and we could help around 382,500 Syrians in the region for the same $1.5bn cost, whilst also entirely funding UNOCHA's Syria programmes. Or virtue signal instead - but that will help less Syrians.
UNOCHA’s data for 2016 clearly shows that when it comes to who is helping more refugees, but doing so in the region, the UK is by far one of the most generous states in Europe, both as a government and as private citizens.
Government contributions to UNOCHA Syria programs
Out of 47 National Governments in 2016, the UK contributed the 2nd highest in Europe - $376.7m to Syria (10.6% of the total of $3.54bn and 0.014% of GDP). Only Germany contributed more ($1.06bn, 0.03% of GDP). The UK contributed 6 times more than France ($59.9m, 0.002% of GDP) and 20-30 times as much as Italy ($12.2m, 0.0006% of GDP).
A comparison by GDP is shown below. Were all governments giving equally according to the size of their economy, these values would be the same.
Private citizen contributions to UNOCHA Syria programs via UNICEF National Committees (NC's)
Another source of funding for Syria is UNICEF’s National Committees who donate to UNOCHA. These are privately funded and operate in 34 countries (over half of which are in Europe).
UK citizens gave $6.7m to Syria via UNICEF - again, the 2nd highest in Europe (12% of the total of $55.1m). Germany gave more ($11.8m), but UK citizens contributions were 36 times that of Luxembourg ($186k) and 62 times those of France ($108k). Note that Luxembourg citizens are very rich and have the highest per capita GDP in the entire EU, whilst France is a similar sized economy to the UK:
Behind these bland financial statistics are the real Syrians helped - 4m provided with clean water, 2.7m relief packages distributed, 7m vaccines administered and so on. The UK isn’t providing as much assistance as Germany (who are also resettling more refugees in their own country), but it is certainly doing a lot more than most in Europe.
In addition, the UK is also one of the top funders of the UNOCHA agency itself for its worldwide work in general, not just Syria. In 2016 the UK was UNOCHA's biggest donor in Europe. In 2015 the UK was biggest donor in the entire world (out of 27 participating countries, including the USA and China).
All UNOCHA Syria data is for 2016 and aid for ’Syria’ includes Syria and surrounding countries (Jordan, Lebanon etc). Data is for grants/free aid, not loans. EU Commission funding excluded as the EU is not a national government, and UK contributions would also be in the EU figures. Source: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Financial Tracking Service. (UNOCHA FTS). There are two Syria plans: 3RP 2016 and HRP 2016
3: Muslim Immigration
The UK is the 2nd most tolerant in Europe.
In Dec 16/Jan 17, Chatham House carried out a survey of over 10,000 Europeans about their attitudes to Muslim immigration and whether it should be stopped altogether (presumably due to terrorism or cultural concerns). Spain and the UK were the only two European states where majorities didn't favour such a ban:
4: Immigration in general
Whilst slightly negative towards immigration in general, the UK is ranked 16 of 28 EU states, only slightly below the EU average. Positive feelings in the UK towards immigration also improved during and after the Brexit referendum. Overwhelming majorities favour granting an unconditional right to stay in the UK for EU nationals post Brexit.
According the European Union’s Eurobarometer survey in May 2016 (right before the Brexit vote), the UK is more negative towards EU immigration than most EU states (ranked 23 out of 28 states), but much more positive towards RoW immigration (ranked 8 out of 28). The UK is slightly below the average in the EU when you combine the two, and overall 16 out of 28 states in “positive feelings” towards immigration.
Post Brexit vote, a study published by the LSE into the ‘non-existent tide of hate against EU migrants’, (also based on the Eurobarometer survey using data from Nov 2016), concludes that “the UK public actually became more positive towards EU immigration between November 2015 and November 2016, the period covering the campaign, vote and supposedly hate-filled aftermath”.
Immediately after the referendum, polling for British Future showed that an “overwhelming majority” (84%) of British people think that all EU nationals should be allowed to remain in the UK, with “any future changes to apply only to new migrants”. This includes 77% of Leave voters.
5: Attitudes to Muslims / Jews / religious and cultural minorities
The UK is the most tolerant in Europe towards Muslims, significantly better than the median attitude towards Jews, and slightly better than the median attitude towards Roma/Gypsies
Compared to the UK, many European citizens have attitudes that are so shocking it is hard to believe they willingly disclosed them to a pollster.
8 out of 10 Italians dislike Roma/Gypsies. Two thirds of Poles dislike Muslims. Over half of Greeks dislike Jews:
6: Gays, Lesbians & Gay Marriage/Civil Unions
The UK has consistently been one of the most tolerant European nations towards Gays and Lesbians.
According to the European Social Survey (which is a comprehensive survey of 250,000+ people in Europe every few years), the UK is one of the most tolerant nations in Europe. And as data is only available for 2010/2011, it is likely this attitude has improved even more since then:
This is also reflected in legislation on Gary Marriage/Civil Partnerships, where the UK (ex. Northern Ireland) leads the way with a relatively small number of Western European states:
7: Freedom of Expression
The UK is one of the most tolerant nations in Europe for freedom of expression.
In Spring 2015, Pew carried out a major worldwide poll on attitudes to freedom of expression in 45+ nations, including the UK and 5 major EU states (France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain).
If you dig into the detailed data in the report and compare answers to the top 3 most important questions, the UK is dramatically better in respecting freedom of expression. In fact, only the UK has a majority in favour of a fundamental free speech principle: being able to say offensive things without "the government" preventing you from doing so:
8: Migrant assimilation of democratic values
Turkish voters in the UK voted overwhelmingly against anti-democratic changes in Turkey (79.7% ‘No’), one of the highest rates in the whole of Europe.
The April 2017 Turkish Referendum on increasing presidential powers has been widely interpreted as likely to reduce democracy and limit freedom within Turkey, possibly including increased Islamism as well as authoritarianism. Foreign Policy magazine says it may turn President Erdogan into “something akin to a sultan”.
A number of lazy die-hard Remainers on Twitter have compared the Turkish referendum to Brexit, largely because of the narrow result (51.4%-48.6%) and the fact it was carried out via a referendum (so I guess they must be the same, right?):
Obviously this Tweet hasn't aged well since Theresa May called a snap UK general election in June 2017 that will likely give even more "democratic legitimacy" to Brexit than it already has (like the small matter of being voted for by more people than have voted for anything in the UK, ever).
But putting that aside, this comparison of Erdogan & Brexit is spurious as the issues involved were completely different, and Turkish voters in the UK (around 20,000) actually overwhelmingly rejected these changes by 80%-20%, by far one of the highest rates in Europe (image courtesy of Facts4EUorg):
9: Extremism of political parties
The UK has no far left (outright communist) or far right (outright fascist) members of Parliament or government, unlike many other European states. Partially this is down to the nature of the political system - First Past The Post tends to block out extremist parties more than Proportional Representation which is more prevalent elsewhere in Europe - but it is also because such extremists are consistently rejected by the UK electorate.
No UK far left communist candidate has been elected since 1945 (and only four prior to that), and the truly far right (recently represented by ethnic nationalism of the British National Party, rather than the Euroscepticism of UKIP) received less than 1.9% of the vote in 2010 and under 0.1% in 2015, never coming close to having an MP elected.
This is unlike many European states - in many Parliaments across the continent, outright Nazis or unrepentant fans of Stalin have been elected and are in office today, holding opinions that would make even Jeremy Corbyn or Nigel Farage blush. By way of example:
🇦🇹 Austria - the Freedom Party has 38 members of Parliament. It was founded by a literal Nazi - a former SS officer. It recently received 46.2% of the vote for President and is leading opinion polls in Austria for the next General Election with around 30% support.
🇭🇺 Hungary - Jobbik has 24 members of Parliament and is widely regarded as racist and antisemitic. One of its deputy leaders once called for “tallying up” of Jews in the country as they posed a “national security risk”. It received 20% of the vote in the last General Election.
🇬🇷 Greece - Golden Dawn has 17 members of Parliament. With a flag modelled on the Nazi swastika, it has an MP who described Hitler as a “great personality”. It is polling around 7-9% support. The Communist Party of Greece (which is still using a hammer and sickle on their logo) has 15 Members of Parliament, and is also polling a similar level of support.
🇧🇪 Belgium - Vlaams Belong has 6 members of Parliament and prominent members believe any Muslim who wears a Hijab should be deported. Polling around 10% support.
🇩🇰 Denmark - the Danish People’s Party has 37 members of Parliament. It recently proposed a complete halt on all non-Western immigration to Denmark. Received 21% of the vote (2nd place) in the 2015 General Election.
🇫🇮 Finland - the Finns Party has 37 members of Parliament. It opposes same sex marriage, favours significantly restricting immigration and withdrawing from the European Union. It has around 17% support in opinion polls.
This list doesn't even include other nationalist or "populist" Parties across Europe such as the Sweden Democrats, Norwegian Progress Party or Front National in France.
And being an actual Communist before the fall of the Berlin Wall or uninterested in the democratic process generally isn't a problem in the European Union itself either.
Federica Mogherini (EU's Foreign Minister) joined the Communist Youth in Italy in 1988. Imagine the lack of judgement required to join the Communist Party after the invasion of Afghanistan, the suppression of the Solidarity Union in Poland, and the Berlin Wall keeping half the continent in a giant jail cell.
Violeta Bulc (EU Transportation Commissioner) has never stood for, or been elected to anything in her life (and was probably appointed for reasons of cronyism - her children went to school with the Prime Minster of Slovenia, who nominated her for the EU position). Ms Bulc is responsible for all aviation & rail policy for 500m people. Of course, not being elected or even trying to get elected didn't stop Bulc shamelessly tweeting about "democracy" on the EU's 60 year anniversary (which was laughably retweeted by two UK MP's, Peter Grant and Drew Hendry, both Scottish Nationalists):
10: Implicit racial bias
The UK has one of the lowest "implicit" racial bias scores in Europe.
Harvard University in the US has been running Project Implicit - an online test of "implicit bias" since 2002. This is an "implicit association test", a rapid-response task which asks users to quickly pair items from different categories. One version of the test measures racial attitudes of white participants by presenting black or white faces alongside positive or negative words to choose from.
288,076 Europeans have taken this test between 2002-2015 - with the UK having one of the lowest "implicit racial bias" scores in Europe (even lower than liberal Sweden or The Netherlands and far lower than most of the European Union).
Bonus: Donald Trump
Like the rest of Europe, the UK is highly negative towards Donald Trump (except UKIP supporters, and the rest of the UK likes their leader even less)
It is common amongst Ultra Remainers (who want to overturn the Brexit vote) to see comparisons made between Brexit and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Yet, outside of UKIP voters, the UK public has a very negative attitude towards Trump. This is according to a series of focus groups carried out by Lord Ashcroft in early 2017 (over 10,000 people took part, weighted to ensure the right level of participation by Left/Right, Labour/Conservative/Lib Dem/UKIP supporters).
Whilst there are some similarities (e.g. rejection of existing "establishment" elites), Brexit and Trump are clearly different phenomena. And the leader of UKIP is also the least popular UK politician by far:
If the UK really were "gripped by atavistic xenophobia" - a claim made by The Guardian for cynical political reasons and shared by prominent public figures such as scientist Brian Cox without any evidence - why do more than 600,000 more people want to come and live in the UK every year? Why are many of these from Europe, supposedly an oasis of tolerance compared to our damp, bigoted island?
Based on multiple, independent sources of evidence - refugee financial commitments, opinion polls, anonymous online surveys and election results over decades - the answer is that the UK may have voted to Leave the European Union, but it Remains one of the most tolerant countries on the European continent.
For those who want to continue making the claim that the UK is actually intolerant, "bigoted", "racist" etc. - you'll need to come up with some theory that incorporates all of this evidence to the contrary and explain why it is wrong, rather than simply cherry picking "alternative facts" to denigrate an entire nation and whole swathes of its citizens, simply because they hold different opinions to you about the European Union.