Britain has been shocked by the brutal murder on Thursday of a talented young Labour MP, Jo Cox. That she was the mother of two very small children only adds to the horror. The alleged killer is someone with obvious psychiatric problems as well, it seems, as an affinity for the politics of (to use the shorthand) the ‘far right’.
The alleged murderer, Thomas Mair, appeared at Westminster Magistrates Court at Saturday where he was charged with Ms. Cox’s murder and other offenses. He gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. According to the prosecution Mair said this at the time of the killing:
Britain first, keep Britain independent, Britain always comes first, this is for Britain.
Ms. Cox had been a supporter of the Remain Campaign.
Out of respect, the Remain and Leave sides in the EU referendum quite properly suspended their campaigns for 1-2 days. The vote will still be held on June 23.
It is distasteful to speculate on what effect, if any, of this crime will have on the referendum result, but speculation is already underway, including, inevitably, in the financial markets (thus the pound strengthened against the dollar on the news of the killing, an apparent reflection of the view that the attack made a vote for Brexit less likely). Two polls are expected over the weekend, and one (YouGov) was apparently mainly taken after the Cox’s murder. If YouGov shows a swing to Remain, that will be significant in itself. It could also conceivably influence voters’ views on the ‘right’ way to respond to this tragedy.
Intuitively, it’s not hard to think that horror of this type—the savage killing of a defenseless MP in the street—may contribute to a climate of insecurity in which more nervous voters become even less willing to take (what is easily caricatured as) Brexit’s leap into the dark.
And are the passions aroused by the referendum in some way responsible for pushing Mair over the edge into, allegedly, murder? It’s not easy to identify the tipping point of the unbalanced (Mair reportedly sought counseling the day before the attack) but the best answer to that question is, I think, quite possibly. But to go from accepting that to arguing, in essence, that democratic debate should be toned down is to risk a descent down a very slippery slope.
Here’s Angela Merkel, speaking after the murder:
We know how important it is to draw limits, be it in the choice of speech, in the choice of the argument but also in the choice of partly disparaging argument…
Spiked Online’s Brendan O’Neill (my emphasis added), writing yesterday:
The speed with which broadsheet journalists and people of a Remain persuasion seized upon Cox’s murder as a means of challenging their opponents was alarming and horrendous. Her body was barely cold before the Twitterati, including influential writers, were citing her killing as evidence that Brexit has unleashed atavistic sentiments that have cultivated a foul political climate in which violence can stew.
Then came the columnists, disrespecting the dead by using her as a ventriloquist’s dummy to express their political concerns…[T]he Guardian’s Polly Toynbee said this ‘referendum campaign’ has made the air ‘corrosive’. She doesn’t mean her side in the referendum campaign; she means the other lot, the disgusting lot, the Leave lot. ‘Leave and their media backers’ have created a ‘noxious brew, with dangerous anti-politics and anti-MP stereotypes’, she says. Seeming to suggest that Leave supporters are the political equivalent of insects, she says the leaders of Leave have ‘lifted several stones’ and let out a ‘rude, crude, Nazi-style extremism’. The irony of it: accusing her opponents of being like Nazis while using insect-like terminology to denounce them….
The message is this: if you are anti-EU — or worse, anti-immigration — then you played a part in creating a climate in which an innocent woman could be murdered. This creeping criminalisation of certain ways of thinking, of certain people, is likely to have a chilling effect on honest, democratic debate; indeed it is designed to. The instinct for sanitising debate, and pushing certain ideas, and certain people, back under Toynbee’s stone, has become more pronounced in recent hours…
The exploitation of Cox’s killing is terrible for so many reasons. It’s disrespectful. It’s cynical. It’s ghoulish. It seeks to demonise, and silence, views the mainstream media don’t like. It diminishes the killer’s culpability by suggesting the ‘political climate’ pushed him to do it. And it responds to a murderous attack on a politician by proposing the further weakening of politics. Absolutely the worst response to this killing of a democrat would be to have less debate, less anger, less ideological clashing — things that are the lifeblood of the democratic process. To sanitise politics in memory of Cox would be a disservice both to her and to democracy itself, which by its very nature must permit and in fact encourage the expression of all views – even those held by what the media elite views as disgusting people who live under stones.