Political abuse of Jo Cox murder is a threat to democracy

The repeated attempts to draw political capital from Jo Cox's murder by the Remain campaign are inexcusable. This has taken Project Fear to a new low

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This is the right way to pay tribute to Jo Cox
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Jeremy Havardi
On 22 June 2016 13:58

Last week’s heinous murder of Jo Cox MP sent shock waves throughout Britain, leading to a justified chorus of condemnation. Her assassination was a direct attack on a dedicated and hard working MP and a cruel blow to her family. It was also a paralysing assault on democracy itself.

While her killing highlighted the most odious elements of British life, the immediate reaction showed up the best parts of the national character.

Cross party rancour was replaced by unanimity and space was given to honour her memory. But what is inexcusable are the repeated attempts to draw political capital from her murder. This is precisely what many in the Remain camp have done to their discredit.

The liberal commentariat, having long ago decided that much of the British public was infected with prejudice and bigotry, turned this shocking event into a story about right wing extremism.

First there was a quite chilling headline in the Daily Star titled ‘MP dead after attack by Brexit gunman’. The clear insinuation was that there was a political motive behind the crime, effectively tarnishing the Leave camp.

Polly Toynbee and Jonathan Freeland then offered a collective lament for the state of modern Britain. Both spoke of a climate of fear and hatred that had been stoked up by the right. While they didn’t directly blame this for Wednesday’s killing, they did seek to draw a more tenuous connection between the two.

Stating that it was ‘wrong to view the killing of Jo Cox in isolation’, Toynbee declared of some in the Remain camp: ‘I believe they bear responsibility, not for the attack itself, but for the current mood: for the inflammatory language, for the finger-jabbing, the dogwhistling and the overt racism.’

The campaign to leave had, she added, stirred up ‘anti-migrant’ sentiment. Furthermore: ‘When politicians from a mainstream party use immigration as their main weapon in a hotly fought campaign, they unleash something dark and hateful that in all countries always lurks not far beneath the surface.’

Jonathan Freedland voiced his own concerns. In a Guardian piece he wrote that: ‘If you inject enough poison into the political bloodstream, eventually somebody will get sick.’

Throughout this campaign, he claimed, ‘There has been a drumbeat denouncing “the Westminster elite”, castigating all politicians, along with anyone in authority or in a public position of expertise, as either a liar or the corrupt dupe of a wicked Brussels conspiracy.’

In other words, the murder of Jo Cox was hardly that surprising, given the toxicity and relentlessness of this anti-political ‘drumbeat’.

Other people offered further politicisations of murder. Within hours of her killing, Labour MP Andrew Coyle was saying that the Leave campaign were ‘inspiring extremist elements on the hard right in this country’, a view that many were quick to condemn.

The Spectator’s Alex Massie, after suggesting that Nigel Farage and the Leave campaign weren’t responsible for the murder, added: ‘When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged’. It is the equivalent of saying ‘The right weren’t responsible for the murder, but…’

On LBC, the ‘right on’ James O Brien asked his listeners whether ‘a man today could have been pushed to the brink of murder by political debate and the political situation?’ He added: ‘Can you conceive of circumstances in which somebody living in Britain today could be pushed to the point where they contemplate this sort of conduct? And I'm afraid to tell you that I can’.

Let us be clear. We can agree that there is something nasty about UKIP’s immigration poster. We can accept that there has been inflammatory rhetoric, though on both sides of the Brexit debate, not one.

But there is little evidence that last Wednesday’s crime was anything other than the act of a highly disturbed, far right fanatic influenced by deluded and equally fanatical Nazis. He chose to carry out this crime for his own reasons, assuming that someone mentally ill could even articulate them.

If he was a political activist of any sort, then he was a Nazi, influenced by the odious tones of the extreme right. Thus to posit a connection, even minor and indirect, between the Brexit campaign and the murder of Jo Cox is genuinely absurd.

Worse, to suggest that a man can be ‘pushed’ to contemplate murder suggests that they have less than full moral agency. It makes them out to be less than the authors of their actions, a reprehensible way to shift the blame.

What these figures seem to be demanding now is a rather chilling form of censorship, a demand we lower our rhetoric and silence our manner of expression, just in case more MPs are shot. They don’t say so in so many words, but then they hardly need to. Needless to say, this will disfigure democracy, rather than enhance it.

Of course, democratic debate is at its best when it is informed and reasoned, rather than wild and emotive. But what is more irrational than allowing a madman to dictate the terms of a debate?

That is truly totalitarian -- and it is not the British way.

Jeremy Havardi is a journalist and the author of two books, Falling to Pieces, and The Greatest Briton

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