Andrew Tettenborn

The problem with our hate crime laws

We have a long experience of dealing with hate crime in Britain. In 1958 nine Teddy boys armed themselves with chair legs and iron bars and set about tormenting any black men they could find in Notting Hill. They were caught and brought before Mr Justice Salmon. The judge was taking no nonsense: he sent them down for a stiff four years apiece, adding these simple words: ‘Everyone, irrespective of the colour of their skins, is entitled to walk through our streets in peace with their heads erect and free from fear.’

Yesterday’s very sensible report from the government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities showed a similar exemplary approach to the subject. ‘Everyone,’ it succinctly stated, ‘no matter their background, should be able to live their lives without fear of becoming a victim of a hate crime… There is no place for hate crime, and when it occurs, communities need to see action being taken to address it.’

The simplicity of this idea, and the generality of the words ‘no matter their background’, are important. The Commission is obviously writing in the context of race and ethnicity. But by seeing race as one of the many features forming the complex web of British society, the logic is of general application. The Commission is simply accepting and restating a clear truth. Any crime committed where the offender sees you as different, or as someone who doesn’t fit in or accept some orthodoxy, needs to be taken very seriously by the state. This is because it infringes one of the most vital rights you can have in a liberal society: the right to be left alone to live your life as you choose.

After 63 years, this point should be self-evident. Unfortunately, in the last two decades it has not been seen as obvious at all.

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