British MP Jo Cox’s murder brought civility to the Brexit debate. It won’t last.

We want to believe there was some reason, even a bad one, for a tragedy like this. This is normal, but it doesn’t make good public policy. Some things are just senseless.

This article was first published by on 20 June 2016.

On Thursday, Jo Cox, a rising star in British Parliament, was gunned down on the streets of her constituency in Yorkshire, in the north of England. Cox was a vibrant young mother of two and former aid worker who was fiercely passionate about politics and justice.

She was particularly active on Syrian refugee issues. I testified in front of the parliamentary committee she chaired on Syria in January. She seemed driven to action by the horrors of that war but refreshingly aware that outrage is not a strategy. She was looking for a way to reconcile British interests and capabilities with a situation in Syria that she found simply unacceptable.

Cox’s murder has deeply rattled Britain, but the response from politicians has been extraordinarily dignified. Most have taken pains to avoid politicizing the Labour MP's murder. The British public has thus far been spared the spectacle of some British politician claiming that, say, the prime minister is directly responsible for Cox’s death.

But it can’t possibly last.

That’s because her death came less than a week before British voters will finally decide, probably for all time, whether Britain should stay in the European Union. It’s a vitally important moment in British political history, and the decision is simply too consequential to put aside for the sake of mourning one person.

The initial response to Cox’s death showed “the best of British politics”

In contrast to America, this type of violence is exceedingly rare in Britain. Which means that unlike President Obama, British politicians have little experience comforting the nation about senseless tragedies.

Yet the response has not suffered from this lack of practice. One commentator called the initial response to Cox's murder “the best of British politics.

Politicians from the right including Prime Minister David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party; Boris Johnson, a Conservative MP; and even Nigel Farage, the firebrand leader of the far-right UK Independence Party came together to express their grief and condolences for Cox's murder on Twitter:

David Cameron: “The death of Jo Cox is a tragedy. She was a committed and caring MP. My thoughts are with her husband Brendan and her two young children.”

Boris Johnson: “Sad & shocked to hear of Jo Cox's death. Appalling a MP should lose her life simply doing her best for constituents. Thoughts w/ Jo's family”

Nigel Farage: “Deeply saddened to hear that Jo Cox has died. Sincerest condolences to her family.”

Indeed, in a rather remarkable show of humanity, both sides of the contentious debate over whether Britain should remain in the EU even temporarily suspended campaigning after Cox’s death.

The solidarity and civility can only last so long

But voices have already begun questioning whether the political atmosphere around the “Brexit” campaign contributed to Cox’s death.

The debate up to this point hasn’t been pretty. The “remain” and the “leave” campaigns have accused each other of all manner of lyingscaremongering, and racism. The opposing sides even pelted each other with water in a “battle” of opposing flotillas on the River Thames on Wednesday.

Cox was a prominent campaigner for remaining in the EU — indeed, one of her last tweets was a picture of her husband and children taking part in the faux Battle of the Thames on the “remain” side.

The “leave” campaign has recently turned toward not-so-subtly coded racism. The underlying message is that staying in the EU means Britain will soon be overwhelmed by unwashed hordes of brownish immigrants from exotic and violent locales.

Cox’s murderer may well have put these facts together. The attacker reportedly was a subscriber to neo-Nazi literature, and several witnesses said they heard him yell, “Britain first,” as he shot and stabbed her. Of course, police are still investigating the murder, and early reports aren’t always reliable. But that won't stop the speculation.

So the struggle for Jo Cox’s legacy has already begun. It probably cannot be any other way. The question of British membership in the EU is simply too important to put aside for the sake of mourning one person. The polls show that result is too close to call, and it is inconceivable that such a prominent murder will not play a role in the outcome.

Perhaps it is even appropriate. Cox herself was an intensely political person, clearly very passionate about her beliefs and devoted to her causes. Maybe she would want her legacy to reflect that and advance the ideals she fought for.

We shouldn’t let senseless acts dictate policy

But maybe Cox’s murder is just a senseless act. Her killer, after all, appears to be what they would call in the British vernacular a “nutter.” Even if his deluded mind was moved to murder by the political context of the referendum campaign, that doesn’t mean that context is the problem.

If this particular person had screamed, “Allahu akbar,” instead of, “Britain first,” we would have drawn opposite conclusions. But in both cases the problem is being a nutter. So we should probably treat mental illness better, not change the way we conduct political campaigns.

In the end, it doesn’t make much sense to draw conclusions about society from the violent acts of a nutter, regardless of whether that nutter professes deluded radical Islamist views or deluded neo-Nazi views. That we often do draw such conclusions reflects our need to find meaning in senselessness.

We want to believe there was some reason, even a bad one, for a tragedy like this. This is normal, but it doesn’t make good public policy. Some things are just senseless.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Research Director
Director, US Programme

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