Brexit’s first victim
Her murder took place days before British people vote in a historic referendum on whether Britain should remain in or leave the European Union. In common with most Labour MPs, she was committed to the “Remain” campaign. She was holding a drop-in centre in Batley when one of her constituents, a middle-aged white Englishman named Thomas Mair shot and repeatedly stabbed her, allegedly shouting “Put Britain first” as he did so.
Now under arrest, her assassin had links with neo-Nazi organizations. On being charged, he said, “My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”
Elected for the first time as an MP in May 2015, Jo Cox was not yet well known to the wider public. The tributes paid to her have underlined that she had already won vast respect across the spectrum of British politics. An assiduous local MP, she was also a busy internationalist, fervent in her work for Syrian refugees. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, considers her a martyr, a humanitarian who was slain for her beliefs.
During the referendum campaign Labour MPs have enjoyed limited access to the British media. To an extraordinary degree, the referendum debate has been dominated by Britain’s ruling Conservative Party and its savage divisions over Europe. Television viewers been endlessly exposed to Remain campaigners, chief among them Prime Minister David Cameron, and those who favor "Brexit" (British exit from the European Union), such as the Justice Minister Michael Gove and the former mayor of London, now a Conservative MP, Boris Johnson.
Much in evidence too, it should be added, has been the leader of the hard right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) Nigel Farage, who has made a career out of denouncing the EU.
At issue above all between the Remain and Brexit campaigners has been immigration — which is proving as damaging to the Labour Party as to David Cameron’s section of the Conservative Party: Many white working class Britons blame previous Labour governments for allowing immigrants to take jobs and exploit welfare. The larger background to Jo Cox’s murder was a debate in which opposing politicians have venomously contradicted one another over the numbers of people likely to enter the United Kingdom unless Britain leaves the EU and regains control of its own borders. Its immediate background was the rabble-rousing extremism of Nigel Farage.
With talk of uncontrolled EU-enforced immigration seeming to benefit the Brexit campaign, Farage alleged that if Turkey were to join the European Union Britain would be exposed to 75 million Turkish migrants. To dramatize the claim (which has no conceivable credibility), he unveiled a poster in which he is seen standing in front of an unending queue of Syrian refugees with the caption “Breaking Point.” Earlier he had declared that British women faced the kind of mass sex attacks reportedly made on German women by refugees in Cologne last December. He likened this threat to a nuclear bomb.
Brexit portends an ugly, xenophobic, inward-looking Britain. But what happens if it becomes apparent that the politicians who predicted a Britain transformed by Brexit turn out to have been making empty promises? They are gambling that freed from the EU Britain will not only regain control over who can get into Britain but become palpably more democratic and prosperous. There is no guarantee of that. Indeed, much informed opinion suggests that exit from the EU would have crippling consequences for the British economy. The Brexiteers are riding a tiger. The demonizers of immigrants may end up being demonized themselves.
The murder of Jo Cox has had a sobering effect. Yet the referendum result is likely to be close, with its legitimacy furiously contested by the losing side. Her murder is symptomatic of a terrible malaise — a malaise, to be sure, by no means peculiar to the United Kingdom. It has left British people of goodwill in no doubt that the idealism for which she stood needs all the champions it can get.
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