Tributes in memory of murdered MP Jo Cox are left at Parliament Square in London, June 18, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters
 
The last time the United Kingdom went to the polls for the Brexit referendum in June 2016, Member of Parliament Jo Cox was murdered in broad daylight following an ugly campaign tinged with xenophobia. The vote was followed by a spike in hate crimes targeting European Union citizens and others in the UK perceived to be foreigners.

This prompted both the UN and the Council of Europe’s human rights chiefs to express alarm. The UN’s anti-racism committee concluded that the prejudices “created and entrenched” by politicians “embolden[ed] individuals to carry out acts of intimidation and hate.”

This time, can the UK keep hate out of the general election campaign?

The early signs are not particularly encouraging. When Prime Minister Theresa May announced the snap poll for June 8, she said she wanted to unite the country while simultaneously criticizing opposition parties for opposing Brexit.

The following day, one leading newspaper’s front page summarized her speech with the headline: “Crush the Saboteurs.” In November 2016, the same paper’s front page headline, “Enemies of the People,” appeared above photographs of three judges who ruled that parliament needed to be consulted on the decision to leave the EU. 

Given the risk of violence and hatred, it’s vital that ministers distance themselves from such language and images. Recall that Jo Cox’s neo-Nazi murderer shouted, “This is for Britain” as he stabbed her, and “death to traitors” during his trial.

This week the UK Independence Party, UKIP, responsible for the notorious anti-migrant “Breaking Point” poster in the referendum campaign, published an “integration agenda” using the hashtag #BritainTogether. It suggested, inaccurately, that minorities are disproportionately responsible for “vote stealing,” and proposed a range of policies that appeared to target Muslims as a problem, including bans on face veils, that a former major donor to the party described as a “war on the Muslim religion.

Whatever UKIP’s aims with its policies – few would disagree that female genital mutilation is a human rights abuse – trying to bring Britain together by portraying Muslims as a threat can easily slip into incitement to hatred.

Rough and tumble is to be expected in any election campaign. But given the lethal violence during the UK’s last major election and its disturbing aftermath, all political parties should choose their words and images with care, and avoid inciting hate and violence.