Jo Cox


Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a white supremacist terrorist as the referendum campaign entered its final week. Her death overshadowed the final days of campaigning and gave rise to fears by leave campaigners that it would cost them the referendum. There were those who sought to make simplistic connections between her death and a perception of the leave campaigns as promoting xenophobia, for example by the Austrian chancellor Christian Kern, French economy minister Emmanuel Macron, and German chancellor Angela Merkel. However there was little attempt by British remain campaigners to use her death as a campaign tool, with the notable exception being Stephen Kinnock using the parliamentary debate on her death to criticise Nigel Farage for his Breaking Point poster. In life Cox was a convinced campaigner for a remain vote, but not a prominent figure on the campaign until her death. Despite the complaints of some leave campaigners, such as Farage, that her death was exploited there was a general reluctance in the United Kingdom to use her death for campaigning advantage. This was seen most clearly in holding vigils on 22 June, which would have been her 42nd birthday, which overshadowed the primarily remain focused showpiece rallies on the last day of the referendum campaign. Nonetheless her death has been invoked by those disappointed at the result, although less so by British politicians, and so it is appropriate to investigate her role in the remain campaign and the possibility that the remain campaign played a role in her death. Jo Cox had been one of the MPs elected to parliament for the first time in the 2015 general election. Although she had spent many years away she was elected to represent the constituency in which she grew up, Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire. It formed part of the Kirklees Council counting area, which voted leave by a clear majority of 55% to 45%, although Kirklees borders Leeds, which voted remain by a margin of less than 3000 votes. The trial into her murder suggests that the constituency surgery she was killed on the way into was to include her giving a speech in favour of the European Union. She knew, however, that like many Labour MPs outside metropolitan areas that she faced an uphill battle to persuade her constituents to support her view on voting remain.

Her support for the European Union was very much that of an insider as she had worked for a while as an advisor to Labour MEP Glenys Kinnock. She wrote an article for the Politics Home website on 13 June, but that is unlikely to have made her a target as her killer appears to have obtained the gun used in the shooting at the start of June. Cox, along with her husband and two small children, took part in the speedboat attempts to disrupt the Fishing for Leave flotilla on the Thames on 15 June, the day before she was shot dead. Her involvement in Bob Geldof's counter protest against a beleaguered fishing industry might have been ill advised, but the trial evidence suggested that the plot to kill her was well in place by that point. So while she was campaigning for a remain vote, it would not appear to explain why she personally was targeted.

Part of the reason why British politicians did not make quite the same connection between the tenor of the referendum campaign and her death was that evidence quickly emerged that the chief suspect had connections to white supremacist extremism. The murderer, Thomas Mair, was reported to use the phrase "Britain first" as he attacked her, which many media outlets report as "Britain First," which is the name of a anti immigrant and anti Islam political group that grew out of the far right British National Party. The murder trial was told that the full phrase was "Britain first, keep Britain independent, Britain will always come first," which leaves it unclear whether he was invoking the name of Britain First. What is clear is that Mair had been involved in white supremacist groups for 25 years. After his murder conviction an editorial in The Guardian strove to keep alive the connection between his decision to kill his local MP and the atmosphere of hate encouraged by the referendum campaign. Yet that interpretation does not fit the facts of a pre-planned terrorist assassination. As Mair refused to give any defence at that trial and the judge refused his request to make a statement after his conviction it is unclear what his intentions were.

Jo Cox's husband Brendan depicted Mair as an incompetent who sought to divide the country by killing Jo, but ended up uniting it. That is, however, the view of someone at the heart of the democratic way of politics commenting as if Mair was political extremist who got a bit too wound up by referendum campaign rhetoric. The history of terrorist violence in Britain and elsewhere would suggest that this terrorist act was not designed to help the democratic campaign to leave the European Union, but to destroy it so that violent action remained the only answer. That was the approach of the IRA during the United Kingdom's first ever referendum when Northern Ireland voted in 1973 on whether to unite with the rest of Ireland: they shot dead a soldier guarding a polling station in Belfast and planted four bombs in London that resulted in 200 injuries. Therefore it is far from clear that Mair, and whoever he was working with, were trying to support the leave campaign.

Jo Cox's death appears to have effected the leave campaigns much more than the remain one. The leave campaign was very muted in that final week, while the remain campaign continued to spend more time attacking Vote Leave and Nigel Farage that it did talking up the European Union. On the last day of campaigning there was a vigil in Trafalgar Square that was overflown twice by a pro leave plan. There was a brief social media uproar about that until the flight company revealed that the flight path had been arranged weeks in advance and the police had not requested any change for the vigil that the pilot was unaware was taking place. Then as it appeared that leave was destined for victory Farage declared that this was a revolution that did not involve a shot being fired. This was presumably a pre prepared line, although maybe not the most appropriate phrase to use. However those disappointed remain campaigners who focused on his statement failed to address the key point that there was no evidence that Jo Cox was killed because of the referendum. She was murdered as the referendum campaign entered its final week, but the evidence of the murder trial suggested that Farage was correct in that the referendum revolution did not involve a single shot being fired. In fact the leave victory may have undercut what Thomas Mair was hoping to achieve through his terrorist act.

A common theme in discussing Jo Cox's legacy is to say that she always stood for a more tolerant Britain that respected difference, but that image is hard to equate with her role in disrupting a legitimate protest by the fishing industry the day before she died. This theme of inclusion is drawn from her first speech in the House of Commons during which she spoke of the ethnic diversity in her constituency as revealing that the different groups have more in common than that which divides them. This was eulogised after her death into her total political philosophy, but what she in fact said was that she was struck by this fact of having more in common as she met constituents, not that it was a philosophy that she was seeking to teach them. It is understandable that in the earl weeks after her death that there was a desire to sanctify her memory, but as the dust has settled a more dispassionate assessment is called for. Jo Cox did not always stand for inclusivity as was shown in her strong support for military intervention in Syria. She called for parliament to recognise that this was a conflict about Syrians, but without any acknowledgement that it is a culminating of the ever worsening conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Military intervention is never a good way to sort out another country's ethnic conflict and certainly is not a good basis from which to teach Sunnis and Shias that what they have in common is more important.

From a European Union referendum perspective Jo Cox's legacy is likely to be forever associated with her involvement in the disruption of a fishing protest. It would, however, be wrong to judge her negatively on that front, because Thomas Mair robbed her of the chance to decide whether she should join with those remain campaigners who were disgusted at Bob Geldof's behaviour. Nor did she have the chance to acknowledge that it was not Farage's flotilla, but a Fishing for Leave demonstration. West Yorkshire may be land locked, but East Yorkshire was very much concerned about the decline of the fishing industry that once dominated its coast. Had Cox lived to see the referendum result she would have had the chance to reflect on every single counting area on the east coast voting leave and possibly reassess her involvement in Geldof's counter protest. None of those opportunities were available to her, because an act of terrorism deprived her of life. So while the image of her holding an In flag while confronting a fishing vessel at close quarters will remain in the account of the campaign, it is unfair to judge someone deprived of the opportunity for calmer reflection after the referendum had taken place.

© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved