Yesterday afternoon Jo Cox, the MP for Batley and Spen, was working in her local community near Birstall Library. She had spent the day doing constituency work and campaigning for Britain to remain a member of the European Union. However this turned out not to be a normal day for her. At around 1pm 52-year-old Tommy Mair stabbed and beat her before shooting her twice in cold blood. Although people from across the political spectrum have been united in grief by the tragedy, information is coming out that is troubling.
Cox’s death was the first time a sitting MP was killed since Ian Gow was murdered by the IRA in 1990. She was also the first female MP to be both attacked and subsequently killed whilst in office. As a mark of respect the two campaigns of the EU referendum suspended their activities for the rest of the day. Tributes have poured in from across the political spectrum and around the world. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Prime Minister David Cameron both sent messages of condolence and solidarity to Cox’s family. The former US Senator Gabby Giffords, who herself had been shot by a constituent, said that she was “absolutely sickened by the assassination of Jo Cox”.
According to eyewitnesses the gun that was used by the assailant appeared to be homemade. Mair had been featured in an article in the local newspaper about his support for a mental health day centre that he reportedly attended. However, even though he may have some form of mental illness it is also important to emphasise that there is an ideological dimension to this story. Another witness said that Cox’s assailant yelled the phrase “Britain first” both before and after he had shot her, clearly demonstrating his far-right sympathies. Further an investigation by The i has discovered that in the 1980s Muir held a subscription to the magazine South African Patriot which has been associated with far-right groups. Indeed during this time period the magazine frequently featured articles that could be described as pro-Apartheid.
The far-right group Britain First has come out and condemned the attack with their leader Paul Golding stating: “this is a terrible day for our democracy and our parliamentary system”. My response to this is not what you might expect. Not all far-right groups are the same. Britain First are a hateful far-right nationalist group that encourage bigotry and discrimination against Muslims, however they also fetishise what they deem to be traditional British symbols. For example they have an irrational love for the Church of England and the British political system, including the monarchy. This statement from Golding is consistent with that ideological outlook and therefore I don’t believe blame should directly be attached to the group.
Having said that these groups do create hostile conditions in society which stoke resentment toward public officials. I am incredibly critical of politicians, media figures etc. but far-right groups inculcate people with a sense of what is people’s ‘birthright’ and then blame The Other for these problems. When figures in authority are derided as allowing this Other to take away people’s birthright, it shouldn’t be unsurprising that irrational people act violently.
Unlike in the United States where the problem is so easy to diagnose, this incident has left Britain shocked. There is no real policy response one can take to prevent such an event occurring once again as this happens incredibly rarely. The only thing I can think of is increasing accessibility and funding for mental health services, but again this would only prevent people whose sole ‘motivation’ was mental illness. Such a policy move would do nothing to stop an attacker purely motivated by an ideological conviction. Senator Giffords was correct- this was an assassination. The assailant may have had a mental illness but the vast majority of mentally ill people do not kill politicians. I don’t want to speculate about such a serious issue but I personally feel that the information coming out is proving one conclusion: Muir was motivated by far-right views. If the police investigation discovers that this was not his primary motivation then I shall retract this part of the article.
I was going to make another point about how the nature of far-right politics requires us to resist their rise however I have decided that such an act would be callous given the time-frame of Cox’s death. Instead I shall write it as a separate piece so it doesn’t appear like I’m using her death for political capital. We may feel helpless in times like these and I don’t know what else to say other than that the whole labour movement and the whole country is standing in solidarity with Cox’s family. Today she will be in our thoughts.