I hope the killing of Jo Cox has no impact on the outcome of the Brexit referendum. The late MP for Batley and Spen was, according to the obituarists, a passionate believer in Parliamentary democracy and the scope it gives politicians to change things by the power of their words. She would surely have wanted the issue to be settled on the strength of the arguments rather as an emotional response to a shocking – and very public – murder.
Her death has, however, become the dominant moment in the campaign. Both sides have suspended hostilities for the next few days, presumably until the weekend is over, and the shock will reverberate up to and beyond next Thursday’s vote. An unstintingly negative, increasingly bilious and sometimes unhinged debate, conducted in an atmosphere almost entirely purged of facts and nuance, has been brought to a shuddering halt by an act of mindless depravity. Now might be as good a time as any to take a hard look at what our public discourse has become. The three referendums of David Cameron’s prime ministership – on the Alternative Vote system, independence for Scotland and now Britain’s membership of the European Union – have been characterised by a wilful disdain for the facts, a torrent of personal abuse on social media, and gnashing contempt for anyone deemed a member of, or too close to, ‘the establishment’, which these days includes the media. But in the context of its predecessors, the EU referendum has felt like stepping out of a puddle and plunging head-first into an open sewer. The media, in focusing on the colourful and controversial rather than the sincere and sensible, have certainly played their part in distorting the picture. It was only after she died that anyone noticed Jo Cox and her children had been on one of the boats in the farcical ‘Battle of the Thames’ that played out on the last full day of her life, because all eyes were trained on the stand-off between Nigel Farage and Bob Geldof. We have seen too much of the Nigel Farages in this campaign and too little of the Jo Coxes, and now they are one fewer.
The Brexit debate has exposed Britain’s festering underside: a country uneasy with its declining status in the world, casting about for scapegoats and finding two. Immigrants, coming over here, stealing our jobs and our houses and our place in the doctor’s surgery queue and sending all our child benefit back home, and Eurocrats, coming over here, stealing our sovereignty, our pounds and ounces and Routemaster buses, and charging us for the privilege. We may never fully untangle the complex web of circumstances that led Thomas Mair to bring about Cox’s death. The courts may or may not decide he was in a responsible state of mind when he did so. His connections with extreme right-wing groups are becoming clearer but they are not the sole explanation. Perhaps the Brexit debate was the trigger for his transformation from workaday fascist sympathiser to a cold-blooded killer, or perhaps he was heading down that road already.
Incivility is not a uniquely British disease: if social media has taught us anything, it is that small-minded parochialism is the one strain of opinion that exists in every country in the world. But in the EU referendum it has become the prevailing political mood. Even if we ultimately agree that the Brexit debate had no influence at all on Jo Cox’s killer, here’s a suggestion: why don’t we make a conscious effort to raise the tone anyway, just for the sheer hell of it? What if we spent the last few days of the campaign treating each other with respect and ditching the emotive language? How about if we agreed to lay off the ad hominem attacks, hackneyed comparisons to the Nazis and the indiscriminate use of words like ‘liar’ and ‘traitor’? What possible harm could it do?
Above all, it’s time to stop the shouting. Nobody can shout and think at the same time. And meaningful public debate requires people to use their brains as well as their mouths. In Jo Cox we have lost a fine exponent of that.