The Historic Tragedy of Jo Cox and the European Referendum Campaign

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, June 21st 2016

Sometimes we should struggle to find the appropriate words. This is such a time and moment. A campaign that has already reached new lows plummeted to depths previously unimaginable with the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox.

Two thoughts. First, this is a much more exceptional tragedy than commentary has so far stated. The killing of Jo Cox is rightly said to be the first murder of a British MP since Ian Gow at the hands of the IRA in 1990.

Historically, eight MPs have been murdered in the history of the UK – six at the hands of the IRA/INLA and Irish Republicans. This underlines the unique awfulness of the death of Cox. She is the first national politician to be killed – other than by Irish Republicans – since Spencer Perceval who was assassinated in the House of Commons whilst Prime Minister in 1812.

Second, something has gone way wrong in this campaign. The level of hateful, virulent, right-wing populism from Nigel Farage, UKIP and the Leave.EU campaign, has been a new low. The shock and awe tactics, the coarseness, base attitudes, vulgarian characteristics, and contempt for others, facts or truth, are a threat to any kind of democratic debate. There is no direct link between the Leave campaign and the death of Jo Cox, but all hatred needs a sea to swim in, and Farage and his gang, have provided that. They need to look deep into their souls, if they know how to, and ask what kind of human beings they are.

As in the indyref (which in comparison appears a Socratic exercise), the voices of don’t know, unsureness and ambiguity, have been silenced in favour of organised certainty and closed minds. This is how our politics, media and public debate has evolved. By chance this weekend I watched the film ‘Best of Enemies’ – that covers the famous 1968 William Buckley Junior v. Gore Vidal TV debates, offering a harbinger of the future which we now inhabit

Buckley v. Vidal ran ten TV debates during the 1968 US Republican and Democratic Party Conventions, and can be seen as the moment when illumination and education gave way to entertainment and superficiality in how politics and ideas are discussed. At the film’s conclusion, one commentator cites Wallace Stevens’s poem ‘The Snow Man’, with the opening line ‘One must have a mind of winter’ and that concludes:

For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

That is what we are losing in the noise and insults – the ability to see ‘the nothing that is.’ The path of the last forty years hasn’t worked for anyone, bar second-rate populists, dodgy leaders, and self-interested elites. We have had many warnings, including the tragic death of Jo Cox. When will we listen, wake up and take a different course?