Are We Better Than This? The Tragic Killing of Jo Cox
This is an attack on all of us. The murder of Labour MP Jo Cox is an assault on parliamentary democracy but disgracefully not as much a shock as it should be. Part of British politics have sunk that low.
This is an age of anti-party politics – of anger at the political classes and of populist indignation and cynicism. Across Europe, there has been the rise of racist, xenophobic and anti-immigration parties, and even the re-emergence of neo-Nazis as electoral forces in Greece and Hungary. And that’s without mentioning the hideous phenomenon of Donald Trump in the US.
The centre-left and political establishments across the developed world have not known how to respond, and whether to appease or engage with their voters – or to take them head on.
Britain’s European referendum, called by David Cameron, was meant to lance the boil of the Euro issue in the Tory Party, and the threat from UKIP. It has worked in complete reverse, and little more than a year after the unexpected 2015 Tory election victory has galvinised Cameron’s critics, UKIP and Eurosceptic Tory opinion, and helped consolidate a hard right populist politics.
Before the tragic murder of Jo Cox, this referendum had already had several new lows – taking it into Powellite territory and language. On the morning of the attack on Cox, Farage unveiled a poster with the words ‘BREAKING POINT’ and a photograph of a long human convoy waiting to get into the European Union. The message was clear. This was the price of UK EU membership – a tidal wave of human misery building up with the sole intent of getting into the UK.
The day before the Farage flotilla sailed up the Thames to be met by the forces of Captain Bob Geldof commanding the opposing forces of the Remain flotilla. There was some good joshing and Geldof calling Farage ‘a fraud’. Yet, it got heated and ugly. One fishing man called out: ‘Hitler did it with gas! Merkel does it with paperwork!’ Others shouted ‘traitor’ at those opposing UK withdrawal from the EU.
Two days previous Leave.EU’s grotesque poster played on last weekend’s Orlando massacre and homophobic hate crime with the slogan ‘Islamic Extremism is a Real Threat to Our Way of Life’ followed by ‘Act Now Before We See an Orlando-Style Atrocity Here Before Too Long.’ Although not of their doing, this was a huge embarrassment to the officially designated Vote Leave campaign.
Leave.EU have been running a squalid gutter campaign – the like of which has not been seen in mainstream British politics since the infamous ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour’ by-line in Smethwick 1964. Last week Leave.EU issued an offensive cartoon of an EU ship heading over a waterfall to disaster (see below). On first examination, it didn’t look too bad, but closer scrutiny revealed its deep racism. In the middle of the ship were two bearded figures, one with a scimitar and the other a bag of money, the former forcing a blond Aryan man to walk the plank. This draws on anti-Semitic imagery, but here these figures are portrayed as Muslims. And just for good effect a cannon called ‘Diversity’ shot a hole in its own deck, with a shark swimming in the sea labelled ‘Political Correctness’. This is how far British politics have fallen.
The backstory to this is the rising tide of anti-immigration, anti-foreigner, right-wing, populist, xenophobia sentiment. The emergence of UKIP as a serious electoral force, winning the national vote in the 2014 Euro elections, and almost four million votes in the 2015 UK election (but due to FPTP only one seat), has reshaped British politics and seen the mainstream Westminster parties react in confusion.
The Remain camp in the EU referendum haven’t run a good or decent campaign, or one inspired by enlightened values. Instead, it has been about bogus economic figures and threats, how Brexit will destroy the great British property boom, and hence almost, the British way of life, and if we are not careful, civilisation itself (that later point was Jonathan Sacks’ ridiculous point).
The Leave camp have plummeted depths unseen for decades, and yet, after the tragic death of Jo Cox, still have numerous apologists. For example right-wing blunderbuss Rod Liddle still argued that there was an equanimity between the Remain and Leave campaigns of awfulness and vileness, writing: ‘The claims on either side of the Brexit debate are hyperbolic, exaggerated, idiotic.’
Jo Cox’s death at the hands of Thomas Mair has a wider context, beyond the actions of a lone, perhaps mentally unstable, killer. First reported as saying, when he attacked Cox either ‘Britain First’ or ‘put Britain first’ it now emerges that Mair had far-right and neo-Nazi connections, and was a supporter of the neo-Nazi National Alliance.
A comparison between the EU referendum and Scotland’s experience of the indyref is a salutary one. While many, mostly on the pro-union side, complained about intolerance and over-zealousness by some independence supporters, our democratic explosion can now be seen as an almost Socratic exercise in public debate and deliberation compared to the Euro referendum.
That is worth emphasising to those who tried to dish the ‘Big Bang’ of hope and imagination which ran like an elemental force through Scottish society. The worst physical violence against a senior public figure was the egg thrown at Jim Murphy. Yet in places, there were elements of uncontrollable rage and fury which benefitted no-one including some more blinkered independence supporters calling pro-union figures ‘quislings’ and ‘traitors’. And from extreme pro-union opinion, there were an array of ‘Nazi’ and Hitler references towards Scottish Nationalist supporters, often focused on, but not exclusively on what various SNP leaders did and didn’t do in the Second World War. None of this helps their respective causes.
Political passion, energy and enthusiasm are wonderful things. Fanaticism and blinkeredness are complete and utter negatives. One galvinises and enhances democratic debate; the other, disfigures and diminishes public life. As Brendan Cox, Jo’s husband, so eloquently said immediately after her murder ‘Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous.’
The referendum has become to all intents and purposes a cultural war – with a corrosive, pent-up, uncontrollable set of emotions, anger and hatred given permission by the Leave side. Is this really what Britain amounts to? Where now is the idea of the UK as a tolerant, welcoming place? We all know this was in many respects a myth, but is the conduct of the referendum campaign really who some of us are?
One tragic killing cannot define a country, but it can encapsulate a campaign and an issue. Both Remain and Leave have run Eurosceptic campaigns – the first, soft, the second, ugly and unapologetic. But we have to take on and challenge the politics unleashed by the Leave argument, and say ‘Not in My Name’ to their despicable, ugly populism. We are better than this. If that is so the haters have to be called out and defeated, otherwise the future might well be theirs.