Britons Wary of Using MP Jo Cox's Murder to Score Political Capital

Could – or should – the assassination of MP Jo Cox serve one side or the other in Britain’s bitter and divisive referendum campaign?

Tributes in memory of murdered Labour Party MP Jo Cox, who was shot dead in Birstall, are left at Parliament Square in London, Britain June 18, 2016.
Neil Hall / Reuters

In the days since the murder last Thursday of Member of Parliament Jo Cox by a man with ties to far-right movements, British politicians and media are finding it very difficult to pinpoint where — on the scale between terror attack, political assassination and the act of a mentally disturbed individual — to place the violent death of the 41-year-old human-rights campaigner. The difficulty is intensified by the timing of the murder, exactly a week before the referendum over Britain’s membership in the European Union – a campaign that in recent weeks has become much more bitter and divisive than any British general elections in living memory.

Political murders, taking place in what are ostensibly democratic societies, are outside the accepted political rules. While the players are reluctant to treat this as part of the proceedings, it is impossible to ignore the motives behind such acts, which arise from the political situation, as well as the shock waves left in their wake.

Over two decades after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, there is still no agreement over the political discourse that preceded Yigal Amir’s crime. Did “the incitement lead to the murder?” Or despite its harsh tones, was the criticism of the Rabin government by Likud and its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, within the bounds of legitimacy? It’s very difficult also to assess the murder’s ongoing impact over time. If Shimon Peres had called for immediate elections, as some of his advisors counseled, he would probably have beaten Netanyahu by a wide margin. Instead he waited six months. In a documentary broadcast last month by Israel’s Channel 2 TV, marking 20 years to those elections, Avigdor Lieberman, then Netanyahu’s right-hand man, speaks of how important it was for the right wing to remove the stain of Rabin’s murder with which the left and the media had tried to taint it. Some still see Rabin’s murder as an “assassination that succeeded,” by bringing the right to power and ending the Oslo process. On the other hand, it is just as likely that Netanyahu would have won anyway, if Rabin had lived, and that peace with the Palestinians would not have materialized.

To this day, there are those who accuse Peres’ campaign managers of not doing enough to remind the public of Rabin’s murder in the run-up to the elections. They may be right, but there was no lack of politicians and pundits who constantly blamed Netanyahu and the entire right wing, helping to create a backlash that pushed Netanyahu over the line.

Over the previous week in the United States, following the murder of 49 people in the Pulse night club in Orlando, the American right, and especially Republican candidate Donald Trump, have sought to emphasize the Muslim identity and jihadist motivations of the killer, and little else, hoping to justify Trump’s racist calls to bar Muslims from entering the country. On the left, there is a clear preference to highlight the targeting of a gay club, characterizing the shooting as a homophobic hate crime, while continuing the Sisyphean quest to clamp down on the unfettered sale of guns. All of this is unfolding against the backdrop of the presidential race. According to the latest polls, Trump failed to capitalize on the Orlando massacre, nose-diving in the polls against his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. But there are still five months until Americans go to the polls. The Trump camp may derive some hope from the precedent of Israel’s 1996 elections and believe they have time to reverse the trend.

British Prime Minister David Cameron (C), takes part in campaign calls for Britain Stronger in Europe campaign for the forthcoming EU referendum, London, England, Apr. 14, 2016.
Stefan Rousseau/ AFP

“A week is a long time in politics” said British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once, and this week, between the murder of Jo Cox and the EU referendum, is a particularly tricky one for Britain’s politicians, anxious not to be seen as making political capital out of the murder. In other political cultures it would be easy. Cox wasn’t only an enthusiastic supporter of the “Remain” cause, she was also an indefatigable campaigner for refugees and other migrants hoping to find haven in Britain. This is an unpopular position, especially during a referendum campaign in which the “Leavers” have effectively used the immigration card. Over the last few weeks, having largely lost the debate over the economic implications of taking Britain out of the EU, with the financial experts near unanimous on the damage it will cause, the Leave camp has fallen back on immigration. The fear of millions of dark-skinned foreigners swarming in to the British Isles and taking jobs and social benefits, has been hugely exaggerated of course, but it touches on the deeper fears of many Britons. Until last weekend, it seemed to be working, with Leave closing the gap in the polls and taking a small lead.

Tommy Mair, the alleged murderer of Jo Cox, seems from reports so far to have been a supporter of far-right and neo-Nazi groups violently opposed to immigration. He echoed their slogans and also some of the Leave camp’s rhetoric when on Saturday he was brought before a magistrate and said: “My name is ‘death to traitors,’ ‘freedom for Britain.’” The politicians and the press in nearly every other country would be making the clear connection between Mair’s views and some of the slogans from the campaign trail. Only hours before the shots were fired, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage, had posed in front of a poster showing, under the slogan “Breaking Point,” hundreds of Syrian refugees walking along a European road. Commenters on social media were quick to show its resemblance to Nazi propaganda in the 1930s. A day earlier, Farage had led a flotilla of yachts down the Thames in London, calling to “take Britain back.” On one of the small boats facing the UKIP flotilla, was Cox’s family – her husband and two small children.

On Saturday, Prime Minister David Cameron and leader of the opposition, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, visited the site of Cox’s murder together. In the town of Birstall, where she was gunned down across from her office after a meeting with constituents, they laid flowers together. Cameron lauded the values she had fought for, while Corbyn condemned the “attack on democracy” and “the well of hatred that killed her.” Neither of them mentioned the referendum.

Such a joint appearance of Netanyahu and Peres 20 years ago at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, or by Trump and Clinton last week in Orlando, is all but unthinkable. A lot of credit goes to Britain’s political system. Still, it’s worth noting that while there is usually an ideological chasm between Cameron and Corbyn, this time they find themselves on the same side — both supporting Remain. Their joint appearance looks likes a desperate attempt to hold on to the shreds of the image of a more polite and cultured political discourse, where violence is almost unheard of. This image is being seriously tarnished by the referendum campaign.

Another obstacle to “politicizing” the Jo Cox murder is the fact that Britain is one of the only countries where sub judice and contempt of court are still seriously upheld, making it illegal for public figures and the media to mention certain details pertaining to the murder and the alleged perpetrator until they are formally brought up in court. But with so many of the details being revealed anyway on social media, including by sources outside of the U.K., these standards are also eroding.

Campaigning was suspended on Thursday, by both sides, immediately after the shooting, even before Cox’s death was announced. To some extent, this played into the hands of the Leave camp. On Friday, the main headlines in the two main pro-Leave newspaper, The Sun and the Daily Mail, referred to a lone crazed gunman, downplaying his political views. Most of the rest of the pro-Remain media was much more careful and only a handful of pundits have specifically spelled out the connection between the murder and the referendum and how the acrid campaigning contributed to the violent atmosphere. Those who have done so have been swiftly accused by Leave-supporting journalists of hypocrisy, since they weren’t eager to point out the murderer’s ideology following the Orlando massacre.

In the four days left until the referendum, there will inevitably be those who will seek to politicize Cox’s death. Will it help the Remain campaign convince undecided voters or even change the minds of those planning to vote Leave? There is a belief in the West that political assassinations cannot subvert the tide of progress or serve the political agenda of the assassin. After all, the murders of the two Kennedy brothers and of Martin Luther King in the 1960s didn’t stop the march towards equal civil rights in the United States. But that isn’t always the case. The worst act of right-wing political terror in recent years in the West, the attacks carried out in Norway by Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people, mainly members of the youth movement of the Labor Party, failed to shift the electorate leftward. Two months later, the right gained ground in local elections, and in 2013, a coalition of right-wing parties, including the Progress Party of which Breivik had been a member, came to power. Thirty-three survivors of the massacre carried out by Breivik on Utoya Island were on Labor’s candidate lists; that didn’t help them win. The Norwegian government has since clamped down on immigration.

As we have also seen in Israel, the shock caused by a political assassination may be felt deeply, but passes soon enough, and doesn’t always change public opinion in predictable ways. Those analyzing the polls in Britain have always predicted that at the final stage before the referendum, many voters will hesitate and decide to vote Remain, rather than jeopardizing the status quo. The latest polls are already showing signs of that, even those conducted before Cox’s murder. The Remain campaign may be wise not to rush and claim her as a martyr of their cause and just let the British people make up their mind for themselves.