Brexiters must stop trying to police the reaction to Jo Cox's death

Two roses marked Jo Cox's seat in the Commons during yesterday's tributes
Two roses marked Jo Cox's seat in the Commons during yesterday's tributes
Ian Dunt By

Yesterday’s admission from Leave.EU donor Aaron Banks that he had conducted polling on the public impact of Jo Cox's death confirmed what we already suspected: that many Brexiters feel the event will push the EU referendum towards Remain.

It seems a grotesque, distasteful thing to think about, and probably it is. But there is a campaign on, with a vote in 48 hours, and it is unrealistic to pretend that these calculations are not made, very often by people who are genuinely upset by the death at the same time. Humans are odd. They're capable of feeling deeply and making cold calculations simultaneously. The fact someone makes an assessment like that doesn't mean they're heartless.

For the Remain camp the death forced a pause in campaigning just when they needed to get their message out. But for Brexiters it was far worse. In a contest which is fundamentally about risk and the public appetite for a jump into the unknown, the news of a mother being killed in the street seemed to affirm a sense of chaos and impending darkness. It provided an emotional backdrop which gravitated towards concerns about stability and security.

But that’s only half of it. Brexiters aren't just scared the death will have an impact on the referendum. They’re scared it will force a change in how we talk about immigration. An expectation might develop that the debate be discussed moderately, with as little emotion as possible, and on the basis of facts.


That would be a disaster for the anti-immigration lobby, which is very good at telling stories designed to trigger an emotional response, particularly in those who are struggling to get by. 'This family of seven just arrived in Britain and now they're in the council home you didn't get' - that type of thing. Sometimes the stories are true. Mostly they are false. But they are all based on highly emotive and divisive attempts to turn the public mood. They reached a pinnacle - for now, if we're lucky - in the Nigel Farage 'Breaking Point' poster.

For those two reasons - Brexit and the continuation of an aggressive anti-immigration debate - Jo Cox's death needed to be stripped of its political context. It could not be treated as a political killing of a political person, with political causes and political repercussions. It had to be turned into a simple story of personal tragedy. Nothing more.

Of course, we don't know all the details of what happened and we are unable to talk specifically because of the trial. But it is madness to treat this as a non-political event. 

It started with people online questioning the events of the day or the political nature of the attack. When that became impossible, it turned into pretending there was nothing to understand but 'mental health'. Now it has become a policing operation where critics tell journalists, politicians and even her own friends and family to stop trying to 'take advantage' of her death.

It's like saying football fans tried to take advantage of Hillsborough by demanding safe stadiums, or that US congressmen took advantage of September 11th by arguing for air marshalls on planes. To respond to a tragedy by asking how you might prevent another is not taking advantage of it. It is to try to prevent it happening again.

During yesterday's Commons debate on Cox's death, Stephen Kinnock, who shared an office with her and knew her well, told MPs:

"I can only imagine Jo's reaction. A poster on the streets of Britain that demonised hundreds of desperate refugees, including hungry, terrified children, fleeing from the terror of Isis and from Russian bombs. She would have responded with outrage, and with a robust rejection of the calculated narrative of cynicism, division and despair that it represents. Because Jo understood that rhetoric has consequences. When insecurity, fear and anger are used to light a fuse, an explosion is inevitable. It is the politics of division and fear, the harking back to incendiary slogans and rhetoric of Britain First, that twists patriotism from love of country into an ugly loathing of others. We must now stand for something better – because of someone better."

When he was done, some Brexiters, including otherwise respectable commentators, attacked Kinnock for taking 'advantage' of Cox's death.

For her friend to discuss the beliefs Cox held was not to take advantage, but to give her the tribute she deserved, the sort she might have wanted to hear. The cynicism involved in pretending otherwise is outrageous.

But it was just part of the attacks on anyone talking about the event in anything but the broadest terms.

Yesterday's Sun said there was a "conscious and deplorable" move to turn the vote into a moral crusade. "We are now told it's wrong to raise concerns about immigration," it went on.

What inaccurate, misleading nonsense. It is the Sun which is trying to censor others. No-one has claimed that debating immigration is immoral. This is the old lie of the anti-immigration lobby, the demonstrably false claim that they are not allowed to talk about it. They talk about it incessantly, on every TV channel and radio station, on front pages, on posters, in speeches, in think tank reports, every day. It's all they ever talk about.

They are not being told to stop talking about it. They are being asked to think about how they talk about it. But this is too much of a threat to way the anti-immigration lobby goes about its business. It knows that a reasoned, evidence-based debate on immigration would destroy its support. They need to appeal to emotion. So they try to redefine a criticism of hateful immigration rhetoric as a criticism of all immigration rhetoric.

Hours later Farage was being asked about his poster on the Today programme. He replied:

"It was unfortunate timing that within a couple of hours of releasing it, this terrible, tragic murder took place."

Asked whether he understood the outraged response, he suggested it was a sign that the "establishment" was out to get him for talking about immigration.

The Ukip leader is doing two things here. First, he is acting as if people are saying there is a direct causal link between the poster and the death. No-one is saying that. They are saying that that type of poster reflects and encourages the type of hatred which can lead to political violence.

Secondly, he is dismissing all criticism of the poster as the reaction of "the establishment" to anyone talking about immigration. It's the exact same logical fallacy as the Sun: to pretend that criticising some kinds of immigration debate is the same as criticising all kinds of immigration debate.

These people are not guarding the sanctity of Cox's memory. They are playing a base political game.To pretend this wasn't a political death is not to rise above politics, it is to engage in it - but to the detriment of the person who died and others who might be at risk.

We have an opportunity to make something good out of this tragedy, to use it as a turning point in how we debate politics. That opportunity must be taken. But it cannot be if Brexiters keep circling the wagons around the way many of them conduct the immigration debate.

Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners

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