Remember the photograph of toddler Aylan Kurdi on the beach? Well, of course you do. It was the image that was supposed to change the world; to remind us all of the humanity of refugees and end the vicious scapegoating of migrants forever.
And – for a brief period – it did shift the tone of the debate. But we’re a shallow species with a short attention span, and it wasn’t long before stigmatising, xenophobic language crept back into the public discourse; not long before Prime Minister David Cameron felt confident enough to haggle over the fate of 3,000 unaccompanied Syrian children.
The process started before the EU referendum campaign got going, but, my, how the debate ramped it up. Stoking fears of unfettered population movement has been at the heart of the Brexit argument. The deliberate conflation of refugees from outside the EU and economic migrants from within it – and the writing off of entire populations as good-for-nothing scroungers – peaked in Nigel Farage’s disgusting, hate-mongering poster of a queue of displaced people with the caption, “Breaking Point: the EU has failed us all”.
Now the killing of Labour MP Jo Cox, who devoted so much of her energy to the Syrian crisis, has jolted us into taking stock once more.
Her death has held up a mirror to the state of Britain – and what a terrifying reflection we are being forced to confront. In it, we see a political climate in which no rhetoric is too extreme, no blow too low if it furthers your agenda. Selling lies about migrants and fuelling public resentment is par for the course. The consequences for society if the electorate swallows these myths wholesale doesn’t seem to trouble many consciences.
And lots of voters do. Out vox-popping, you hear people repeat them verbatim. You listen aghast as they strip “foreigners” they have never bothered to get to know of their individuality, dismissing them all as on-the-take.
Cox’s death has also drawn attention to another unpleasant phenomenon: a growing contempt for our elected representatives and the normalisation of aggression towards them. This is the age of the political outsider: people like Farage, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. It suits them to portray those in the mainstream as a homogeneous elite interested only in feathering their own nests. But as Cox has so clearly demonstrated, the concept of public service is not dead. There are still conviction politicians, and even those whose convictions we oppose are not fair game for personal abuse.
Again, out interviewing, you witness the way this contempt has filtered down and is manifesting itself on the street. Last week, one man – an SNP supporter – told me he’d like to “get Nicola Sturgeon against a wall and tell her a few home truths”. This just hours after Cox’s murder. And the unpalatable fact is that, if it hadn’t been for the timing, I’m not sure I’d have given it much thought.
Reflecting on what we’ve become and how is such a depressing exercise, it could easily tip you over into despair. Except – strangely, thankfully – what has seared itself on my mind over the last few days is less the poison spread by extremists, or the violence of Cox’s alleged killer, and more the love and positivity she appeared to invoke in all around her.
You only have to look at the photographs, in which she simply radiates joy, or listen to the many tributes that have been paid her, to understand that she was a force of nature, a force for good. Living on a houseboat, taking her children out on the In flotilla, she cared nothing for convention, nor for people’s ethnicity or social backgrounds, only for their dignity. Some people have the innate ability to bring out the best in others. Cox was one of them.
Her husband Brendan too. That statement, issued just hours after her death; I’ve never read anything like it. How immense a spirit would you have to possess for your first thought on losing your wife to be: “I will not hate.”
Cox’s death brought tears across the political spectrum. It united people of all faiths and none. The reaction it inspired was everything the EU referendum campaign wasn’t; an unwelcome yet effective antidote to all the bile that has been spouted.
By Friday, Brendan was already thinking about how he could build on her efforts to fight back against the “dangerous breeding ground” of economic insecurity on which the populist right has fed. His argument is that many mainstream politicians are so scared by extremists’ invective on immigration they try to “neuter them by taking the same ground and aping their rhetoric”, which only serves to legitimise their views. Thus you get the Remain campaign arguing that leaving the EU will not solve immigration instead of countering the fallacy that immigration is an inherently bad thing.
Perhaps we can do our part by nursing the outrage we feel right now, and by focusing on all Jo Cox stood for, so that, this time, we don’t allow the discourse to lapse back into migrant-baiting; so that, this time, when we say: “Her death was the moment that changed everything,” we mean for more than just the length of time it took for our attention to wander off elsewhere.
In a joint statement issued after last week, the leaders of the Syrian Association of Yorkshire, Scotland4Syria and the Syrian Welsh Society said: “British politics sacrificed its own humanity in its response to the Syria crisis. Jo Cox did her best to redeem it.”
The former aid worker didn’t need a tragedy of Aylan Kurdi proportions every 10 months to focus her mind on the humanity of those people displaced from homes by war or poverty or on the importance of behaving with kindness and civility; nor should any of us.