The killing of Jo Cox: A demeaning of politics
Angela Merkel urges UK politicians to ‘draw limits’ around language used in political debate, warning of ‘unstoppable radicalisation’
By all accounts, from friends, colleagues, rivals, and constituents alike, Jo Cox was an exceptional MP, one of the stars of last year’s Commons new intake. Universally liked.
Above all, she appears to have been driven by an idealism, joyful energy, and inspiring can-do enthusiasm that belies – is the antithesis of – the crude caricature of self-serving, remote politicians that is the currency of the toxic “anti-politics” culture that is taking hold in Europe.
The killing of this young mother was monstrous and irrational. The unarticulated cry of so many who knew her was: “Why her of all people?” A bit like the caller who rang this paper some years ago to protest at our dispatch of a young woman reporter to a war zone – “Why not send an old man at the end of his career?”
Sometimes we can over-interpret an event, invest it with a significance and rationality it doesn’t have. There is a danger we will do that with the killing of Jo Cox. We don’t know yet what triggered Tommy Mair’s violent outburst beyond the fact that he appears to have sought out the MP.
There are indications of a past political engagement of sorts and the “Britain first!” he was heard to shout is suggestive of nationalist and even perhaps Brexiter sympathies. But perhaps it was just a random act.
Yet, beyond the personal tragedy, whether a deliberately political act or not, the killing is a body blow to democratic politics and to the remarkable accessibility of the UK’s politicians, particularly in their constituencies. They will be reluctant to increase personal security although many have in the last 24 hours spoken of recent personal threats and the anger they face that has become an increasing part of political discourse in Britain no less than here.
In part it reflects the intensity of the Brexit debate, but has been rising for some time, perhaps as a bleed-through from the often wildly scurrilous realm of online debate. Such discourse does not necessarily cause or promote violence but helps create a climate which appears to legitimise it and in which it can fester.
A Guardian columnist wrote yesterday that “something close to a chilling culture war is breaking out in Britain”. Opponents are branded “traitors” and worse, women are hounded with vile sexist abuse online, racist dog whistle comments are tolerated. Political life is demeaned.
Beginning to address that toxic climate is a necessary part of the response to the killing . Jo Cox’s husband Brendan Cox has appealed that “in her memory we should try to conquer hatred with love and with respect”, while Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged British politicians to “draw limits” around the language used in political debate, warning of “unstoppable radicalisation”.
That is easier said than done, however. It is a culture of cynical, aggressive individualism that has not shown itself amenable to argument.