Jo Cox, the Labour Member of Parliament for Batley and Spen, was murdered yesterday by a far-right terrorist who, according to three eyewitnesses, screamed either “Britain First!” or “Put Britain first!” at least twice as he repeatedly stabbed and shot her in the street outside the office where she had been conducting her regular constituency surgery. Just as, for example, the Charleston shooting a few months back a political attack against African Americans, Cox’s assassination is a targeted expression of a highly potent strain of British nationalism, of which the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union has done nothing but fan the flames. Regardless of whether or not her killer referred specifically to the organisation Britain First, a paramilitary group of gurning hate specialists, it is a fascistic statement, especially when said whilst murdering somebody ostensibly to make some kind of point.
The usual edicts of “let’s not politicise a tragedy” are downright laughable here. As one Twitter user pointed out, it’s difficult not to politicise “the political assassination of a politician over a political issue by a gunman who opposed her politics.” Given that the gunman, Thomas Mair, was a resident of Cox’s constituency, it’s hard at this stage to discern how much of his rage was directed at Cox as an individual, and how much at the Labour Party and the values he perceived her to represent. Cox campaigned on a number of the issues that might perturb a Britain First supporter most about Labour and the left, in her maiden speech to parliament last year speaking of the way “communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration.” She argued that Britain should remain part of the EU. She advocated for the rights of Palestinians, and was extremely vocal in arguing for a greater intake of refugees from Syria and other countries rife with extreme violence and instability. If there’s one thing the far-right hate more than economic migrants, it’s refugees, who their opponents can actually make a compelling moral case for accepting.
Fascism does not depend merely on organised violence; it requires those vulnerable to its seductive allure to be whipped up into a frenzy by external forces until they act on their own volition. External forces such as, say, a poster, headed “Breaking Point,” depicting a snaking queue of emaciated brown-skinned interlopers right up on yer doorstep; a shot framed as a curious replica of one from a Nazi propaganda film describing refugees from war-torn countries as “parasites, undermining their host countries.” External forces such as an incessant, weeks-long campaign of race-baiting that paints the EU as the harbinger of doom, meaning “immigrants” – a campaign so incessant that it started to work, seeing Leave shoot up in the polls and senior Labour figures crack, fumblingly vowing to return to their core value of “strong controls on immigration,” like that mug that won them the election. External forces such as a decade and a half of shit-talking asylum seekers and migrants – long before there was an actual refugee crisis in the Middle East, demonising Muslims and Eastern Europeans, setting those with similar class interests against one another by lamenting the changing ethnic composition of decaying post-industrial communities in an effort to appease the hallowed “white working class” without actually helping them – in which all major political parties and much of the mainstream media are deeply complicit.
The attack on Cox seems completely unimaginable – there is little gun violence in the UK, let alone against politicians. Gun violence is for Americans. It’s one of many issues where British people are happy to look down our noses at our comrades over the Atlantic, assuring ourselves that in all our buttoned-up superiority we would never concern ourselves with such indecency. But, guns or no guns, the far-right have targeted a number of British citizens in violent attacks over the last couple of years, including Muhsin Ahmed, who was kicked to death by a man described by his judge as “a racist thug” last August. Or there’s Nahid Almanea, a Saudi student from Essex who died after being stabbed 16 times in 2014. Two-year-old Noorsadia Akhter narrowly avoided death last May after being shot in the head by a sniper with an air-rifle (examples drawn from here). Cox’s horrible murder fits this pattern of pointed violence, but the key difference – beyond the fact she is an elected official – is that she is white and not a Muslim. This is where her work as an elected official becomes significant – having used her platform to defend and align herself with the same groups so despised by the far-right, she became a target. Theirs is an insular mindset that despises solidarity.
Given that the assassination was so plainly political (the proof is that I’m using the word “assassination”) it is therefore bizarre and reprehensible that The Sun and The Daily Mail would choose to run with front page headlines describing the killer as, respectively, a “crazed loner” and “a loner with a history of mental illness” and choose to play down any political motivations he might have had. Although it’s especially weird that they both chose the epithet “loner,” what’s really troubling is their determination to attribute a shocking instance of political violence to mental illness – the American gun lobby’s stock technique of obfuscation, by which they seek to play down violence’s political context. One in four people suffer from some sort of mental illness and, yes, it’s highly likely that if somebody’s murdering somebody else they’re probably not wholly sane; ergo, pointing out that somebody deviating so consummately from socially acceptable behaviour might have issues with mental health is a bit of a truism. What’s more, the hacks so quick to associate sufferers of poor mental health with neo-Nazi murderers didn’t even get their sources straight, basing their conjecture on Mair’s psyche on a misquotation of “physiotherapy” as “psychotherapy.” This erasure of the politics of such an act of violence is deeply irresponsible, and it is telling that the papers were not similarly disinterested in ideology when Islamic fundamentalists murdered Lee Rigby in 2013.
Nigel Farage – whose supremely Hitlery anti-refugee billboard was described by the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones as “a visual equivalent of (Enoch Powell’s) ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech” – warned in May that if immigration was not controlled, “violence is the next step.” He got what he wanted. Perhaps Mair thought, like Farage, that the Labour Party were “rubbing (his) nose in diversity.” Although Britain First have distanced themselves from the murder, they might secretly admire his proactivity and initiative, having promised upon Sadiq Khan’s election to the London mayoralty to target Muslim politicians with “direct action” where they “live, work and play.” Cox was not a Muslim, but I’m sure for some on the far-right to kill even a friend-o’-Muslims is an expression enough of one’s patriotism, something they’ve fantasised of during the “knife-defence class” at their “activist training camp” in the Welsh mountains.
The EU referendum has eaten up political debate in this country, bringing to the surface its most poisonous, festering resentments – not so much against the “political class,” as Polly Toynbee put it, but against the “other,” those weakest in society, those kept on the fringes, without a voice. By showing compassion for these people, Jo Cox apparently did not “put Britain first.” With the Brexit campaign having produced the alternative Conservative leadership of the Johnson-Smith-Gove nexus, cheerfully game for any old dog-whistle crap, this cruel, isolationist nationalism is positively thriving. Progressives of all stripes – hell, even the “liberal” wing of the Conservative Party – must resist at all costs a political culture that validates the bigotry of those like Mair, and we must not simply do this by casting a Remain vote in June 23rd, but through a long-term strategy of forcefully refusing to capitulate to demands for venal, craven anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy; to defend a multicultural society and the principle of providing asylum to those in need. Things may yet get worse, but they have simply gone too far in the direction of all-out Little Englander insurrection for any more concessions to be made to people’s basest, most ill-informed prejudices. The fight against fascism and racism must be fought to the bitter end.
Postscript: for more on Thomas Mair’s links to neo-Nazi organisations, read this.