Earlier today the MP Jo Cox was shot and stabbed, and later died of her injuries. I don’t know much about her except what is being shared about her by friends and colleagues. She leaves behind a husband and two children, making this even more tragic. She was at the start of her political career, and had already made an impression in the House of Commons. Her loss has left a huge vacuum that will be hard to fill, and her legacy will help change the world for the better. Ironically she campaigned to end violence against women, only be killed by that very violence.
None of this what I want to discuss today though. Politicians have called off campaigning for the referendum and have been making statements on the news ever since the announcement. While it’s laudable that they don’t want this to influence the referendum campaign, there’s no way it cannot. With only one week left, taking out 48 hours can be disastrous for either campaign. During the campaign I thought two things would happen in the final two weeks. First, that there would be a surge towards the leave campaign, and second that an unpredictable and poorly timed event would take place that would force people to talk about something else. I thought that even was the Orlando shooting, but the death of Jo Cox hits much closer to home.
This is the first assassination of an MP since Ian Gow was murdered in 1999. Jo Cox was killed in broad daylight, by a lone attacker, as she was conducting her MP’s surgery. The killer was reported as saying “Put Britain first”, while Britain First have been quick to distance themselves (while at the same time condoning capital punishment by “stringing them up by the neck from the nearest lamppost”.) Given that Jo Cox was an active campaigner for refugees’ rights, it’s no surprise that some conspiracy theorists are claiming it’s been staged to win support for the remain campaign.
The reaction of MPs has been to come together. MPs from the main parties seem to be getting screen time, repeating phrases like “We need to come together” or “We are united in grief” One MP was even wearing an “IN” pin while giving an interview. There is no way this cannot be politicised, even accidentally, as the media choose to feature MPs from the establishment, and they keep talking about unity, and cross-party cooperation. This will lead the public to come back to the remain side, seeing the common humanity in the main parties. At the same time, people from the leave side will probably be fighting back and spinning this to their advantage through social media. Although both campaigns have called a truce, their main players will not be able to keep quiet.
Putting all this together leaves me feeling deeply uncomfortable. The atmosphere seems to be very tense at the moment, almost suffocating. The campaigning was already bitter and tense enough, although it was interrupted as the world mourned the shootings in Orlando. Then, just as the nation was focusing on the final week of campaigning (with an amusing interlude for the Battle of the Thames), Jo Cox was assassinated. As was pointed out on Twitter:
This is our burning of the Reichstag. This is the event that, as public opinion is on a knife edge, an unexpected and unexplained event forces opinion one way or the other, while also consuming days when time is precious. This time next week the polls will be closed and nothing more can be done about the referendum. The campaigning is going to get even more ugly in the coming week. Once that is over there is the matter of a by-election to replace Jo Cox, and that too will be bitter and ugly.
On the other side of the Atlantic there may be more talk about gun control. The Orlando shooting has lead to a Democratic filibuster in the Senate that has helped push through the foundations for tighter controls, but now I would not be surprised if Republicans pointed to the murder in Yorkshire to show how the UK, even with its Draconian gun laws, still has shootings. This will be a drag on the process and might well end up putting an end to the attempt to regulate access to guns.
Getting back to the main point, Jo Cox was a brilliant MP, and she will be missed by a lot of people. Her death comes at the worst possible time, causing a maximal amount of disruption for everyone, right on the heels of the shooting in Orlando. Her charisma, compassion, campaigning, and family will only serve to distract the public even further and make it easier for both sides to use the tragedy for their own ends. I’m scared of what might happen in the coming weeks.