The murder of Jo Cox asks uncomfortable questions of Britain’s right

Published by The ipaper (20th June, 2016)

The mood was tense, the arguments heated, the nation’s future at stake with just nine days to go before voting. Some polls suggested Pim Fortuyn, a right-wing populist who had shaken up Dutch politics with furious anti-Islam rhetoric, might even become the Dutch Prime Minister with his new party. A silver-tongued debater, the gay sociology professor claimed to represent ordinary people as he called for quotas on migration to stop Muslims entering his country.

Then as he left a radio station in Hilversum 14 years ago, Fortuyn was shot dead by a gunman. Bullets hit him twice in the head, twice in the back and once in the neck; it was the first political assassination in this bastion of liberalism since the 17th century. His funeral was broadcast live. Traumatised politicians halted campaigning and talked of cancelling the election, analysts debated Dutch values and people talked in sombre terms as they reeled from ‘our September 11’.

The shooting of Fortuyn took place 20 miles down the road from the Amsterdam building where I am writing these words. His killing by an animal rights activist underlined the dangers of turning up the political temperature too far even in stable democracies. Fortuyn’s life and death polarised politics. His successor as party chairman lasted just three days after accusing opponents of creating the climate in which such a killing could take place. ‘The bullet came from the left, not the right,’ he said, provoking furore.

Now our nation reels from political murder. Pim Fortuyn and Jo Cox could not be more different as people and politicians, yet there are eerie echoes in this latest tragedy just days before a defining vote. We do not know exactly what led to the Labour MP’s horrific killing. But we do know it follows the ramping up of rhetoric against migrants, the scapegoating of refugees, the traducing of politicians, the trashing of expertise, the tarnishing of a religion. And we have seen a wretched referendum coarsen debate, corrode decency and inflame passions to fever pitch.

The contentious question for Britain to answer is whether the bullet came not from the left, but from the right? And not just the fringe far-right, with its racist ideology and fear-filled messages of hate. But if the cause of that blood spilled outside Birstall public library goes way beyond one man’s meltdown. Can it also be traced back to the bile poured into public debate and the wider political climate, with foreigners remorselessly blamed for failings on schools, health and housing?

Regardless of the answer, there seemed grotesque symbolism in the murder of an MP prepared to stand up for migrants and refugees taking place just after the unveiling of a repellent poster by Nigel Farage. The Ukip leader is, after all, the man who behind his cheeky chappie image has done more than anyone in recent British public life to fuel dark forces of bigotry and popularise xenophobia. As he exploited concerns of citizens alarmed by globalisation, his mean-spirited message dragged much political discourse into a gutter of crass isolationism and crude nationalism.

This reached its apogee in recent months with the Brexit debate. Both sides have hyped up their arguments; perhaps this is inevitable, given the importance of the vote this week for the future of our country. Yet the Leave camp’s toxic hostility to refugees, hysteria over migration and hypocrisy on so many other issues has been little short of repulsive. It is saddening to see such attitudes embraced by some Tory politicians who once preached liberal principles.

Whatever emerges from the fetid mind of the murderer, it would be remiss not to reflect on the kind of nation that we wish to live in and leave for our children after such a terrible deed. The outcry over immigration has already led Britain to briefly halt rescues of people drowning in the sea; now we back deals to aid repressive despots to stop the flow of human beings seeking the sort of stability we take for granted. And at a time when unemployment is at its lowest for more than a decade, we flirt with wrecking our economy simply to stop foreigners coming here to work.

This week will define David Cameron’s premiership, his place in history hingeing on the outcome of the referendum. More importantly, it will also determine the shape of our nation and our society for decades to come. After the shocking death of Cox, it felt like we suddenly stopped fighting among ourselves and, as the fog of referendum battle lifted, remembered we are a decent, generous nation filled with good people. We must remember this after the ballot’s result.

I am currently in a studio working with 50 Syrian musicians rehearsing for concerts intended to remind people of the beauty of their culture amid endless grim news from their tormented nation. Just outside is the spot where film-maker Theo Van Gogh has his throat slit in 2004 after making a provocative film about Fortuyn’s assassination. And today Geert Wilders, another far-right populist, heads the polls here in the Netherlands, preaching fiery nationalism and fanning hatred against Muslims.

Wilders hopes Brexit will trigger the collapse of the European Union. One more reminder that we should seek to bring people together in diverse modern societies and that politicians should not allow hatreds to fester, nor demonise the weak and foster division. These were the ideals that drove Jo Cox. They should also be the bedrock of our democracy and humanity.

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