“The trouble with the English,” one of Salman Rushdie’s literary characters once suggested, “is that their history happened overseas, so they don’t know what it means.” The same could be said of political assassinations. Although, in the past, British officials like Lord Mountbatten have been murdered, such events were usually connected to a venture abroad in Ireland, India, Egypt or beyond. You would have to go back to the 16th century to find a run on indigenous assassinations.
The news that for the first time ever, a female Member of Parliament has been assassinated, is a terrible moment in British public life. The MP, Jo Cox, was stabbed and shot to death last week on a pavement in a small Yorkshire town while meeting her constituents. It shows that the vicious, febrile, conspiracy-laden, fact-adjusting, politician-hating atmosphere that has been growing in recent years has now found its victim. Nobody should be surprised that the perpetrator of the act, an out-of-work gardener named Tommy Mair, has psychiatric problems and fascist opinions. In too many recent killings, the two have gone together: Mental illness and political extremism are literally a lethal combination.
In the debate over whether the United Kingdom should vote on Thursday to leave the European Union, boundaries have been crossed that have existed for decades. Grotesque opinions from the fringes of political life were allowed into the open. To give two examples: The Daily Mail, a national newspaper, ran an article containing remarks about Ramzan that would be inconceivable in the Indian press. And on the day that Jo Cox was murdered, the leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, unveiled a defiantly racist campaign poster showing a line of Syrian refugees in Slovenia with the slogan ‘Breaking Point’.
In the end, every murderer bears responsibility for their actions. When Omar Mateen shot up a gay nightclub in Orlando and killed 49 people, it was his choice.
From what we know, it appears Mateen was mentally unstable and an admirer of assorted jihadist groups. A co-worker has described him as, “Always agitated. Always mad.” The insidious propaganda of online Islamism appears to have fused with his mental weakness to produce one of the deadliest mass shootings in US history. Once the slaughter was done, Islamic State moved to claim him as one of their own.
In the case of Tommy Mair, almost the exact opposite has happened. The creators of the atmosphere of anti-immigrant feeling and hatred in the United Kingdom have run in the opposite direction as fast as their legs would carry them, denying they could ever have encouraged an unstable loner to murder an elected representative. All the talk of “make Britain great again,” and “we’ve been betrayed by the political class,” and “we don’t recognise our country,”and “we want Britain back” is all of a sudden represented as just that — talk. Nothing to worry about, nothing to see here, we weren’t really being serious, please move along.
This is what we know of Thomas Mair: He is 52 years old, a slightly built man who like many an inadequate civilian enjoys dressing in paramilitary outfits. In the 1990s, he signed up as a member of the US neo-Nazi outfit, the National Alliance, and was a subscriber to the white supremacist “South Africa Patriot” magazine. He reportedly purchased a handbook on how to build a gun and make improvised munitions. His house was found by the police to be full of Nazi memorabilia. When asked in court what his name was, he responded: “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”
This is what we know of Jo Cox: She was a politician from a working-class Yorkshire family who won a place at Cambridge University. After representing the charity Oxfam in some of the world’s most dangerous places, she was elected to Parliament and gained a reputation as a powerful, passionate speaker. She campaigned for the rights of child refugees, and for Britain to remain in the European Union. “While we celebrate our diversity,” she said during a speech in the House of Commons, “what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” In the words of a local lawyer, Razia Jogi: “She was a tiny woman with a massive voice.” Cox lived on a houseboat on the Thames with her husband and two young children. She died in the line of duty, aged 41, at the hands of a domestic terrorist.
Compared to other democracies, the UK has a high number of MPs per capita. Each one represents around 70,000 voters, which means a lot of their time is spent on the less glamorous side of politics that would be dealt with, in India for example, by an MLA. Many have been threatened by a member of the public. In the words of David Lammy MP: “We have no way of knowing whether someone will attack us in the libraries, village halls and community centres where advice surgeries are held each week far away from the security and police protection of parliament.” Running in the background, like a broken motor, is vitriolic abuse on social media: This is now a daily feature for anyone in the public eye, always questioning motives, always assuming the worst.
Closely linked to this sickness is a cynical, regressive populism that has got more dangerous as the European Union referendum campaign unfolded. The “Brexit” side has used transparently false statistics and scare stories about foreigners and immigrants. Their campaign has been cynical, and it is widely believed that the former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, one of its leading proponents, does not genuinely favour quitting the European Union but believes it will help his career prospects.
The assumption seems to be that truth is of no great importance providing a political end is obtained. The rise of Donald Trump in the United States has not gone unnoticed: You can say anything, and when you are called out for distortion or bigotry, you just shrug it off and keep moving, and say you are standing up for the little guy who has been betrayed by the elite and the out-of-touch European bureaucracy. When your opponents point out that the IMF, the OECD, the Treasury and the Bank of England all believe the UK would be damaged economically by leaving the EU, you say we can no longer trust experts and must rebuild a glorious past when Britain ran the largest empire the world has ever seen. You excite base emotions, and then deny responsibility when they explode.
The threat to the system of democracy posed by political violence is not unique to the United Kingdom, and is not particular to right-wing, left-wing or religious extremism. But if a parliamentary system is to continue to function, politicians must stop pandering to populist ignorance and bogus patriotism. The public, in turn, must stop demonising every politician, and accept that good people will only enter public life if they know they are not likely be killed by a mentally unstable bigot.