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Soul-searching in the UK over Jo Cox's death

Samira Shackle, LondonJune 17, 2016

Commentators in the UK are asking whether the tone of the political debate contributed to Jo Cox's murder. Samira Shackle reports from London.

London Trauer um Jo Cox
Image: Reuters/S. Wermuth

Britain was soul-searching on Friday after the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in West Yorkshire. At impromptu vigils in London's Parliament Square and in Birstall, where she was murdered, friends and supporters lit candles and laid down flowers.

Cox has drawn tributes from colleagues in Parliament and beyond and from her many friends as a principled humanitarian. Her death has also prompted questions about the tenor of the political debate in the UK.

The general public is also mourning. "I am ashamed to say that I hadn't heard of Jo Cox until yesterday, because she sounds like a remarkable woman who made a big impact in Parliament in a short time," lawyer Tania Brooks told DW. "It is very shocking for an elected official to be murdered - it feels like our entire political system is under attack."

The UK is in the throes of a referendum on EU membership. Both the Leave and Remain camps suspended campaigning until Saturday. "The referendum is a great exercise in democracy," said Chancellor George Osborne. "But the campaign has been suspended, on both sides, out of respect for Jo and her family - and for that democracy she served." Prime Minister David Cameron has cancelled a pro-EU speech that he was scheduled to deliver in Gibraltar.

"I think it's right that the campaigns have been suspended," teacher James Bride told DW. "It's been a depressing campaign full of lies and personal rivalries. Given the tragedy and enormity of losing Jo Cox, I'd like to see all sides behave with a little more dignity when campaigning resumes."

group of people with flags © Reuters/J. Nazca
The campaigns on both sides of next week's EU referendum have been suspendedImage: Reuters/J. Nazca

Poisoned debate

With pollsters saying in recent days that the battle is too close to call, the tone of the debate has stepped up in ferocity. Politicians on both sides believe that this is the political fight of their lives and have been pulling out all the stops. The debate has increasingly focused on immigration.

For many, this was summed up by a controversial poster released by the UK Independence Party (UKIP) on the day that Cox was murdered. It shows lines of dark-skinned refugees with the caption "Breaking point: the EU has failed us all." It caused widespread outrage on social media, and Unison, the public sector workers' union, reported it to the police for inciting racial hatred. Boris Johnson, head of the official Vote Leave campaign, said that the poster was "not my politics."

In a widely praised column for the Spectator magazine, journalist Alex Massie summed up the relationship many see between this vicious political debate and the murder. "When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don't get to be surprised when someone breaks. When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don't be surprised if someone takes you at your word. You didn't make them do it, no, but you didn't do much to stop it either. Sometimes rhetoric has consequences."

This view is shared by many in Britain. "I've personally been very depressed at the tone of the political debate in Britain, not just in the last few weeks, but over the last decade," charity worker Lucy McFarlane told DW. "Hatred has become normalized, not just by the far right but by mainstream politics. We're essentially holding a plebiscibte on immigration next week. This shocking event seems like the natural, if devastating, product, of a toxic political culture."


Yet so soon after the attack, there is caution about drawing conclusions. Labour MP Neil Coyle, who represents the London constituency of Bermondsey and Southwark, directly linked the rhetoric of the Leave campaign to the murder. "I think that the kind of nonsense that they inspire online from anonymous accounts and actually the core content of the poster they launched today . . . risk inspiring extremist elements on the hard right in this country," he said on the BBC's flagship Newsnight programme. He was sharply criticised on social media for "politicising" Cox's death.

But many analysts are reflecting on the relationship between the wider tone of the political conversation in the UK, and the tragic death of Cox. "This attack on a public official cannot be viewed in isolation," said Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. "It occurs against a backdrop of an ugly public mood in which we have been told to despise the political class, to distrust those who serve, to dehumanize those with whom we do not readily identify."

Extra security

Downing Street confirmed that politicians have been warned to take review their security and to alert local police if they have any concerns. All politicians are currently in their constituencies after Parliament went on recess this week ahead of the referendum.

police and forensic teams at crime scene © Reuters/C. Brough
Politicians in the UK have been told to review their security arrangementsImage: Reuters/C. Brough

Yet MPs have expressed their determination not to allow the vital business of constituency work to be restricted. "One of the virtues of our parliamentary democracy is the everyday accessibility of MPs to the people they represent," said Osborne. "It's what makes the way we govern ourselves very different from many others. We believe in freedom, liberty, and justice."

Lord Nigel Jones, a Liberal Democrat politician, who was attacked by a constituent wielding a Samurai sword in 2000, cautioned against fear. "MPs do a difficult and sometimes dangerous job. But parliamentarians are not a special case. Many other people in our society meet the public all the time," he said. "It is important that the public have safe access to their elected representatives. It is part of the country we are."