Jo Cox tragedy brings brief ceasefire in EU war of words

It took a moment of unspeakable brutality to silence the frenzied, farcical and sometimes downright nasty campaigning that has characterised the run-up to this week's European Union referendum.

Gordon and Jean Leadbeater (centre), the parents of Labour MP Jo Cox, and her sister Kim Leadbeater (right) look at floral tributes left in Birstall yesterday. Picture: Danny Lawson/PA

The cold-blooded execution of a young mother while carrying out her duties as a Labour MP has shocked the nation. It has taken deep distress to overshadow the fractious debate which was raging over the UK’s place in Europe.

Suddenly the hysterical claims and counter-claims being peddled by the Remain and Leave campaigns have been thrust into perspective by the grief caused by the incomprehensible killing of Jo Cox.

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With the two campaigns suspended as a mark of respect, the death of the mother of two young children has raised uncomfortable questions about our political culture.

Of huge concern is the way politicians have been demonised in an increasingly intolerant society, which resorts to vitriol rather than rational debate. As is the threat to their safety as they attempt to offer unfettered access to the public in the way that has traditionally underpinned our democracy.

At this stage, no-one can say for sure why someone decided to kill a 41-year-politician who had gained a glowing reputation as a good-humoured, compassionate and highly principled MP who worked tirelessly to highlight the plight of Syrian refugees.

Reports that the man accused of the killing, Tommy Mair, who was born in Kilmarnock, shouted “put Britain First” before he stabbed then shot the MP with his homemade gun have given rise to the suggestion that his attack was politically motivated.

Mair, who had a history of mental health problems and had lived on his own since the death of his grandmother two decades ago, has been charged.

The discovery of his links to far-right groups coupled with the fact that Cox was a Remain supporter has inevitably meant that her killing has been seen by some in the context of the EU referendum.

Attempts to make political capital out of this terrible event ahead of the referendum risk underlining the deep cynicism that has infected politics in the UK.

But Cox’s death outside her surgery in Birstall, near Leeds, does raise deep concerns about the febrile atmosphere in which our politics is being conducted as the UK contemplates a decision on Thursday which will have profound implications for the country’s future.

The Shadow Scottish Secretary Ian Murray is one politician who has voiced his unease about an increasingly angry and fractured type of political debate.

“This hasn’t just been the EU referendum,” Murray told Scotland on Sunday. “Over the last few years political discourse has got incredibly angry and I think there has got to be some kind of reassessment of how we do politics in terms of that anger and division.

“It is clear that politics has become much more about making people believe rather than dealing with factual information. To make people believe you have to ramp up the emotion and that creates a divisive discourse.”

There is little doubt that holding referendums on highly emotive issues such as EU membership encourages feelings of “them and us” and “for and against”.

Arguing over a binary issue divides those who are usually united. The most obvious manifestation in this case has been the “blue on blue” attacks which have torn apart the Conservative Party and threaten David Cameron’s future at 10 Downing Street. Single-issue arguments also create tensions when politicians of different political hues find themselves on the same side, arguing for the same outcome but for different reasons.

It can also split families and friendships. Cameron must have known that calling a referendum would have strained his relationship with his good friend Michael Gove. There have been reports of the politicians’ wives falling out, with Samantha Cameron and Sarah Vine – godmother to the Camerons’ youngest daughter – rowing over the EU.

Politics has become uncomfortably personal. In this type of high-stakes vote, disagreements are fuelled by some people’s insistence on using social media to promote their prejudices in the most unpleasant terms.

In Scotland this is something voters have grown used to. For some the referendum of 2014 was a joyous celebration of the possibilities of Scottish independence. Others, however, were distressed by a divided country where insults and abuse drowned out proper debate.

The EU referendum has raised similar concerns. “indyref on steroids” was how one commentator described the campaign at a recent event. It was a remark which prompted the retort “indyref on sedatives” from a Leave campaigner, who took the view that EU unpleasantness had not plumbed the depths seen in 2014.

Trying to determine which of the two campaigns was the most fraught is a pretty fruitless exercise. What is undeniable, however, is that neither have been paragons of civilised campaigning and the EU poll has been a very poor advert for UK politics.

The Remain side has been guilty of living up to its Project Fear nickname, planting economic scare stories – some of which insulted the intelligence – in an attempt to frighten the public into voting to stay in Europe.

One of the more desperate efforts was Cameron’s claim that quitting the EU would add £230 to the cost of a foreign holiday as a result of the falling pound caused by Brexit – a claim that was ridiculed by his opponents.

What passed for political debate during this campaign was stoked further by George Osborne’s claim that he would have to pass an “emergency budget” to raise tax and cut public spending in order to plug the £30 billion black hole caused by Brexit.

Osborne’s proposals infuriated Eurosceptic Conservatives, who pledged to vote it down. It also begged the question of why Cameron and Osborne had put a referendum on the table at all if the risks were so great.

The warnings of economic catastrophe have been countered by a Leave campaign which has played the migration card at every opportunity. Boris Johnson and Co have argued that it is only by leaving the EU that immigration can be reduced.

It is an approach that has been criticised by the former prime minister John Major, who accused the Brexiteers of “morphing into” Ukip and accused Leave of fuelling prejudice.

The most unsavoury rhetoric, however, has come from Ukip. Nigel Farage’s warning that anger over EU migration could lead to violence being a prime example.

“I think it’s legitimate to say that if people feel they have lost control completely – and we have lost control of our borders completely as members of the European Union – and if people feel that voting doesn’t change anything, then violence is the next step,” the Ukip leader said, prompting outrage from his opponents.

Then, just an hour or so before Cox’s murder, Farage launched an inflammatory poster that was universally condemned.

The image of a long queue of migrants and refugees with the heading “Breaking Point” has been accused of inciting racial hatred, and similarities to Nazi propaganda have been detected.

“We need to talk about the issues, and immigration is one of the issues, but people in the Farage campaign have been guilty of using very intemperate language,” said one Leave insider.

“They should watch their language. They should have watched it even if this terrible tragedy hadn’t happened. They shouldn’t be watching their language because a terrible tragedy has happened. They should be watching it because we are civilised people.”

If that was a low point in the campaign, so was the unedifying event on the Thames when the unattractive sides of both campaigns clashed. On a truly surreal day, Farage and Bob Geldof, representing the Remain campaign, traded insults as a fleet led by the former Live Aid organiser hijacked a flotilla organised by Fishing for Leave and skippered by the Ukip leader.

The ugliness of the encounters and skirmishes summed up two campaigns that have crossed the boundaries of civilised behaviour.

“Using language as a weapon pushes people into corners and ensures they do not listen. Using language to stigmatise and decry or create metaphors of fear does not create an opportunity for dialogue about difficult subjects,” said Rev Ewan Aitken, chief executive of Cyrenians, which runs the Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution.

“Without dialogue we have no discourse. Without discourse the debate is lost. It is tragic that it has taken tragedy for people to realise that words hurt and words stigmatise and words destroy.”

As Thursday’s poll draws nearer, Remain and Leave will today resume their campaigns when Jeremy Corbyn and Gove face each other on The Andrew Marr Show and Osborne and Farage are interviewed on Peston On Sunday.

Out of respect for Cox, their tone will be more subdued but the debate will continue. The stifling of debate is the last thing that Cox would have wanted. As a champion of democracy, she knew that tough decisions require rigorous and forensic argument. But in her private discussions with colleagues, Cox was one of many parliamentarians who had expressed dismay and concern about the hostility and aggression displayed by some towards MPs. Cox stood against the vitriol that has disfigured recent debate.

A fitting tribute to her memory would be if politicians and the public stood back and showed more respect for differing views while making their cases in a measured, courteous and rational manner.