On the Murder of Jo Cox and the Fruits of Hate
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There are few wake-up calls so tragic as the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox as she left her constituency surgery and was shot repeatedly and stabbed to death on the 16th of June. The suspect, the 52-year-old Thomas Mair, reportedly shouted “Britain first” (or “put Britain First”) during the attack, and once in court gave his name as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”
Jo Cox had been a staunch defender of refugee rights and had campaigned extensively for people in places like Syria and Palestine. She was also a campaigner for Save the Children, for women’s rights, and for Britain to remain in the European Union. She had been expected to release a report into increasing numbers of anti-Muslim attacks in the UK, reportedly up 80 per cent in 2015.
While there has been much debate about her alleged killer’s political affiliations, alongside a lot of talk about his mental health – something rarely discussed during Muslim terrorist attacks – there is little doubt about the toxic environment in which the murder took place.
Just that morning, Nigel Farage, leader of the right-wing UK Independence Party, unveiled perhaps the most poisonous campaign poster of modern times for a mainstream party. The photo op saw Farage standing in front of a billboard showing a line of hundreds of dark-skinned refugees, adorned with the words “Breaking Point.” The fact that the UK has only accepted several thousand refugees since the start of the recent crisis is neither here nor there, the fact that “breaking point” could better describe the reason those people sought to flee war and hardship in the first place was also of course lost on him. Also apparently lost on Farage was the fact that the poster was eerily similar to scenes from a Nazi propaganda film. After Cox’s murder, Farage claimed that the only reason the poster was condemned as racist was because of Cox’s death later that day (although anger had already erupted in the hour or so separating the two events).
The UKIP poster might be an extreme example, but it is far from alone in creating this climate of fear. Farage had previously said, among other things, that remaining in the EU will lead to “scenes that we saw in Cologne,” a reference to the horrific sexual assaults that took place in the German city on New Year’s Eve. Many Leave campaign politicians have also started to focus on the fantasy that Turkey’s 89 million citizens are set to join the EU, and they will often also remind people that countries like Romania and Bulgaria have recently joined. They don’t necessarily say why that is bad, they leave that to the imagination.
Referendum campaigns were suspended on all sides for two days following Jo Cox’s murder. There was a sense, for a while, that lessons had been learned, or at least that a degree of thoughtful reflection had seeped into the debate. But after the tributes poured in, it was back to business as usual. Immigration and fear of the outsider continue to be the primary talking points for the official Leave campaigns, and they are built upon years of such scapegoating.
Perhaps one of the most sickening reactions to Cox’s murder was from a far-right splinter group called Liberty UK. As other parties agreed not to contest Cox’s former seat in Batley and Spen in the necessary upcoming by-election, Jack Buckby, a former leading member of the British National Party, made clear that he would, and said that her party had “blood on its hands.” (He said much else besides this, but let’s not legitimise such ideas by offering more of a platform than is necessary).
Meanwhile, Britain First, a small fascist group (albeit with a Facebook following of around 1.5 million), has been desperately attempting to distance itself from the alleged killer, who, remember, is said to have shouted “Britain first” during the attack, and who was apparently involved with a number of far-right groups. But whether or not Thomas Mair was directly connected to Britain First, they can certainly take some responsibility for creating the conditions in which the murder took place. They are known for having “invaded” mosques while dressed in military-style uniforms. Just hours after this attack, the group posted a video of leading member Jayda Fransen harassing what she claimed was a “migrant” family living in a tent.
The group’s leader, Paul Golding, recently (and dramatically) lost the London mayoral election to Labour’s Sadiq Khan. As the result was announced in City Hall, he turned his back on the Muslim mayor, and later vowed to target Khan where he “lives, works and prays.” Again, they have done far worse than this, and, again, I won’t be giving their hatred more of an airing.
But the racism and Islamophobia of the London election was noticeable beyond the thin ranks of Britain First. The Conservative Party led a disgraceful campaign against Khan, as it attempted to frame the vote as one between their white, upper class candidate Zac Goldsmith, and a Muslim with “extremist” connections. Rarely would a day go by without a story in London free-sheet the Evening Standard about how Khan had been seen with muslims who the Tories and their media supporters tried to label as somehow connected to terrorism. The fact that several of these “extremists” also had links to Goldsmith was, of course, not worthy of a mention.
The topics of immigration and Islam, so often bound up together with a nod and a wink by the right-wing press and opportunistic politicians, have become the number one scapegoat for nearly everything. If you can’t afford a house, it isn’t because housing stock has been sold off and used as investments by the super-rich, it is because immigrants are taking them all. If you can’t find a job, it’s because an immigrant has taken it. If there is a terrorist attack (not the kind by white people), it has nothing to do with geopolitical issues or war, it instead has everything to do with our “open borders” or obscure passages from the Quran. The establishment is never to blame, it’s the poor people with brown skin, and sometimes the “traitors” who support them.
This bigotry is all around us every day. Newspapers like the Sun, the Express, and the Mail rarely let an edition hit the stands without talk of “ethnics” ruining our way of life. And there are only so many times they can make passionate calls to “take our country back” before someone tries to do it in the way that Cox’s killer did. Life is getting tougher and tougher for people in the UK, with low pay, soaring rents, and constant cuts to vital services. If you are told often enough that this is all to blame on immigrants and their supporters, it’s little surprise some will take extreme action.
One final note. The suspected killer of Jo Cox was described by his neighbours as a kindly man who did gardening for his community and volunteered for mental health charities. It was surely a surprise to these neighbours that the same person would give his name as “death to traitors” in court, having been accused of murder, but this is how these things begin. The majority of those who would join Hitler’s Nazis or Mussolini’s fascists, for example, did not start out as jackboot-wearing thugs, but as ordinary people who became convinced that Jews and other minorities were to blame for the ills of the world. They didn’t come to that conclusion on their own then, and neither do their successors today.
Whatever the result of the referendum, the fight against such hatred will need to be prioritised. I worry that it won’t be an easy task to put this genie back in its bottle.