A lot of things that have happened in the last couple of years have made me uncomfortable. One of the less important ones is the growing fashion for writing gushing obituaries on social media about dead celebrities. Like so much that one criticises, I’ll probably find I’ve done it myself at some point but it still doesn’t seem particularly healthy. We first started treating grief as a public recreational activity when Princess Diana died and we’ve never really stopped.
I didn’t know Jo Cox and, although I’d heard the name, even as a member of the Labour Party I couldn’t have told you before yesterday which constituency she represented or which particular issues she was known for championing. And yet, unlike anyone else in the pantheon of 2016’s dead celebrities that I had never met, her death got to me. For the rest of the day after I heard the news, I felt distracted and agitated by it and I found myself welling up as I heard some of the reports.
By explaining why this was so and by expressing the emotions I felt at hearing the news, I will be accused of “politicising” a political assassination by a desperate but powerful rear-guard action on the right-wing of British politics. On social media and in the tabloid press they are spinning their vile rhetoric anew, seeking to minimise the capacity of this horrific crime to shine a light on the hatred and fear they’ve been whipping up in our society over weeks, months and years. Typically, a political assassination is politicised by the assassin, not the outraged supporters of the target. The weasel words of the apologists who try to defend the indefensible make me sick to my stomach.
When I was 12, my father died with no warning whatsoever. It’s not what people often imagine if they’ve never experienced the sudden loss of someone close to them; the anguish and torment that people often assume would be the logical response comes later and more slowly. Sudden death leaves a gnawing, burning sensation that never really goes away rather than delivering an immediate sucker punch. The first few days are all numb disbelief. All the more remarkable, then, that Jo Cox’s husband Brendan was able to issue such a coherent response within just a couple of hours of his wife’s cold-blooded murder:
“Today is the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. More difficult, more painful, less joyful, less full of love. I and Jo’s friends and family are going to work every moment of our lives to love and nurture our kids and to fight against the hate that killed Jo.
Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people.
She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous.”
Hate was the catalyst. We should be deeply suspicious of those who would prevent us from naming it and finding its source, or cry “mental health” as a smokescreen (as though they’ve ever given a toss about mental health before)- gun control campaigners in America know all too much about that sordid deflection tactic. Three separate witnesses report that the alleged killer (I won’t name him) shouted either “Britain First” or “Put Britain First” as he killed her (update 18/06/16: the defendant has appeared in court and given his name as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”) There has been a clamour by the far right (especially the group actually called “Britain First”) to try either to deny his links to right-wing politics altogether or to obfuscate about it. This is pathetic. These are the very people who routinely criticise moderate Muslims for failing to condemn Islamic terror loudly enough. It would be the easiest thing in the world for these people to say something along the lines of: “if, as the evidence appears to be suggesting, this individual was acting out of a twisted interpretation of British nationalism, then we wish to emphasise that he does not act in our name and we condemn it utterly.” Instead they attack the “left” (read: everyone that thinks things are going too far when MPs get gunned down in the street in broad daylight) for “politicising” murder, blaming the witness reports on “mainstream media lies” and even, in some cases, suggesting the murder itself was a “false flag” operation by secret agents working for the EU! These are the lengths people on the right of our politics will go to in order to shirk the responsibility for what is happening in our country.
And what exactly is happening? Let’s assume, as I desperately hope we can, that this is an isolated incident; merely the most extreme element in the pervasive web of fear and hatred being spun throughout this country. Why now? What has happened to ratchet such sentiments up so high? Yesterday Nigel Farage unveiled an advertisement which looked as though it had been directly photocopied from a snippet of propaganda used by a group of people in the 1930s I daren’t mention for fear of invoking Godwin’s Law. This was only the latest act in a deliberate and orchestrated campaign to whip up hatred against immigrants and foreigners by a group of people who wish to persuade us to leave the European Union: to “take back control”, to “make Britain great again”, to stick it to Johnny Foreigner and put Britain, well, first. In an atmosphere of ignorant tabloid rage, whipped up by poisonous demagogues like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, an already hysterical referendum campaign is becoming a battle for the survival of some of this country’s most basic values or, as Martin Kettle argues in today’s Guardian, a battle between the press and democracy itself.
It’s not just those on the “Remain” side of the EU debate who believe things have gone too far. Even in the pro-Brexit Spectator yesterday, in a piece for which author and publication alike should be greatly commended, Alex Massie observed: “if you shout ‘breaking point’ over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks.” Those who are deliberately and knowingly encouraging aggression and antipathy towards entire groups and communities to suit their own political aims now have the gall to turn round and accuse everyone else of “politicising murder.”
Jo Cox’s alleged killer did not represent the campaign to leave the EU but it is becoming increasingly clear that he was a symptom of the same hate it’s been peddling. This hideous referendum has unleashed a wave of xenophobic bile we must fight with all our might. Jo Cox believed that and paid for it with her life. She wasn’t just another celebrity whose death can be dismissed with the usual barrage of safe platitudes and uncontroversial praise through amateur Facebook obituaries. She was assassinated for her beliefs and if pointing that out is politicising her death, then so be it: let’s politicise, as loudly and as unashamedly as we can. Politicise it until it can’t be politicised anymore: for democracy, for Ms Cox and her family and for the dream of a better world that was her life’s work.