Last Thursday 16 June, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by some lowlife with connections to the extreme right. Yesterday, in my office, a colleague glibly belittled the crime, saying that people get shot all the time. Well, murder is quite rare the murder of a democratically elected representative by one of her own constituents was almost unheard of – till now. It’s a big deal but why?
A murder is a dramatic event but the drama of this murder was magnified by the contrast between the victim and perpetrator. Sometimes there are no shades of grey and the issue is black and white. There could not have been better representatives of the best and worst of our species. Both were passionate. But while the victim’s passion for the underdog and her home town inspired admiration, the perpetrator’s passionate bigotry could inspire nothing but contempt. No one is speaking up for Thomas Mair’s values, not even the far Right (in public), but Jo Cox’s opponents are lining up to pay tribute to her.
But it goes beyond that and I have struggled to work out why and to find the words to explain why. The BBC’s Parliament correspondent, Nick Robinson, found some of these words for me. It’s worth quoting him in full:
“Today is one of those days when it is very hard to find the words which convey the shock that I – that all those who are in politics or report on it – feel at the news that an MP has been murdered on the streets of Britain. Jo Cox – a popular and respected Labour member of parliament, a young mother and a campaigner for the rights of refugees – was shot and stabbed by a man outside her constituency surgery.
She was vulnerable to attack because she was, like so many MPs, available to anyone who wanted to see her with any grievance.
Her death is a reminder that our elected representatives, who are so often demonised for living separate lives from the rest of us, actually all too often live in our communities, in our streets worrying about the same things that we do. Unlike us, though, they open themselves up not to just to criticism and abuse but to assault by those who disagree with them.”
He goes on to say that the murder reminds us of :
“The need at all times to respect those who disagree with u,s and to understand that anger, fury and rage are not the same as passion or belief.”
Reading these words has helped me find some additional words of my own. It’s worth expanding on Robinson’s last point, especially whether there is a link between Mrs Cox’s murder and the increasing rancour and bitterness that has characterised the referendum campaign.
This link is difficult to prove. It may be something of a red herring. It misunderstands the nature of politics. Politics is often bitter and nasty because people can be bitter and nasty but, since we must have politics, it is better that people express their differences with words, rather than guns and knives.
This, in a nutshell, is what the difference between democratic and demagogic politics is. Democratic politics uses words and that is what politics is like is most advanced, democratic countries, even in the United States. Demagogic politics is the variety we find in places like Nigeria, Iraq, where differences are fought out with guns, knives and car bombs.
Human beings in Nigeria or the United Kingdom are not all that different. They are all creatures of passion. But, for reasons we do not understand, politics in the United Kingdom is fought within self-imposed cultural limits, reinforced by institutions that enforce those limits. One of those limits is the taboo on violence. Democratic politics recognises that attacks must be limited to ideas and not person expressing those ideas. This taboo is weaker in Nigeria, which makes politics there a very frightening thing indeed.
Jo Cox’s murderer broke that taboo. It looks like that his grievance was politically motivated and he took it on himself to wipe out the person who was expressing ideas that he hated. That sort of behaviour is part of the course in some political systems – where demagogic politics reign – but it does not belong here.
It did belong here once. British politics in the 18th Century would have resembled demagogic politics in Nigeria in the 21st. We are not racially superior to the Nigerians. But we have learned to do politics better. There is no reason why Nigerians, over time, cannot likewise learn.
But if others can learn, then we can forget. There is no reason to think the the cultural and institutional restraints that have been developed in the UK these past two hundred years, and have civilised our politics, are permanent achievements. They could be undone. That, I think, explains why the shock and horror of Jo Cox’s murder was so acute.
It was not because there is a clear and present danger that the referendum is going to plunge this country into a bloodbath. But it does indicate that civility and restraint, the essential qualities that underpin democratic politics, have become frayed at the edges. This, in the country that is supposed to pride itself on moderation, unlike those continental types and their dictators. It causes the sort of alarm the appearance of a crack on the wall of the house one thought stood on the firmest foundations creates. It tells us that the structure is under stress. The foundations are not as sound as we thought.
The house was already under stress before Cameron called the referendum. There has been a drumbeat of demonisation against politicians in the past decade of so and some of Nick Robinson’s colleagues have held the flaming torches aloft. One of them is called Jeremy Paxman whose signature sneer of contempt and style of delivery the BBC traded on for years.
The media of course must speak truth to power but this style of politician-baiting has gone beyond that and morphed into something very ugly indeed. It has become a corrosive, contemptuous scepticism, and not just of politicians. It extends to the health service, local government, the police and other public servants.
The media incites human tendencies to magnify the bad and belittle the good, and to pander to our self-righteous tendencies to make ourselves feel good by examining others’ shortfalls mercilessly, while overlooking our own, to demand of others more than we demand from ourselves. This has brought a poisonous, demagogic dimension into politics, which has seeped into our public discourse.
Which brings me back to the trite comment my colleague made yesterday. I now understand why it irritated me so much. My colleague is complacent – all the more so, given my colleague’s skin colour is not one that Thomas Mair would like. Jo Cox was my colleague’s natural ally while her killer is her natural enemy but fails to see this. My colleague takes things like decent public services and relative degree of peace and order for granted. They think that these things are an accident. But the fact the roads are repaired and the lights stay on are not just random, happy outcomes. They are the functions of good, democratic politics and administration.
In the UK, if we want to summon assistance, we phone 999 and expect the emergency services to come to our aid. We do not expect that they will demand a bribe before they do or check our ethnic or tribal affiliation first, to determine if we are worth the bother. But that is a reality in many parts of the world but not here. This is not because we are angels. It is because the representative system manages to uphold values of impartial public service quite well. But we have become complacent.
Jo Cox wanted to make sure that those services are available to everyone, universally, and not just based on the colour of your skin. She was by no means alone among our elected representatives in thinking this. We forget how advanced an idea this is. In many parts of the world, the idea that public service should be disinterested and impartial is not accepted. Nor is the idea that we owe a duty of care to people we do not know and are not related to us, as her work with Syrian refugees showed. We constantly bang on about how we fail to meet these standards, while overlooking that in places like Iraq and Nigeria, they are not even considered standards worth striving for at all. The family and tribe is everything and screw everyone else. This is what Thomas Mair represents.
The murder of a representative and public servant of this system is murder most foul. This is a big deal. It’s no use asking just Nigel Farage to look himself in the mirror. We all do.