Jo Cox's Murder: In Western Democracies, Too, Politicians Die for Their Beliefs

The campaign over the 'Brexit' referendum has been a divisive period for Britain, but who would have expected it to lead to a political assassination?

British mourners place floral tributes and candles by a picture of slain Labour MP Jo Cox in Parliament square in London on June 16, 2016.
Daniel Leal Olivas/AFP

British politics, at least outside Britain, have a polite and rather collegial image. However not all its parliament members are strangers to physical violence. A survey published this year found that 20 percent of MPs had been the target of attacks or attempted attacks.

This isn’t necessarily because of high levels of political violence in Britain. It is more a result of the fact that the 650 MPs represent relatively small constituencies and at least once a week, most of them hold “surgeries” where their constituents can come for private meetings to discuss their issues with the authorities.

Aside from a handful of ministers who receive protection, the close contact between the politicians and those they represent cannot be prevented and no-one in Britain is calling for that anyway. Jo Cox, was murdered on Thursday, by a middle-aged man suspected of having ties with far-right groups and perhaps, as also has been reported, a history of mental illness. She was attacked as she left a meeting with her constituents in Yorkshire.

Political assassination is exceedingly rare in Britain. In previous decades, MPs were assassinated in terrorist attacks by Irish Republicans, who saw the United Kingdom as an occupying enemy, but no-one expected someone to get killed as a result of internal politics.

The campaign over next Thursday’s "Brexit" referendum, on whether Britain should leave the European Union, has been a divisive period, but if anyone was expecting an assassination in the near future in the Western world, they probably would have predicted it would happen elsewhere, perhaps in the United States.

Both sides of the referendum divide have suspended campaigning since Cox was shot, even before news of her death. But though the opposing camps have been careful not to use the tragic event for their propaganda so far, it will be impossible not to connect the assassination and next week’s vote.

Cox, a new Labour MP, was an energetic supporter of Britain remaining in the EU. But beyond that, she campaigned for allowing refugees into the country, a position that many of her own party colleagues are wary of taking openly. This week a number of prominent Labour politicians have said that the party would have to get tougher on immigration if it is to have a hope of recovering working-class voters abandoning Labour in droves.

But Cox, despite representing a working-class constituency where there was bound to be strong opposition to “letting in” more immigrants, did not hide her views. She was recently a prominent backer of an amendment to allow 3,000 children-refugees from Syria to arrive in Britain.

Such views on immigration would normally have placed a British politician on the left-wing of Labour, but she was not so easily pigeon-holed. In last year’s leadership election, she actually voted for Liz Kendall, widely considered the most right-wing of the four candidates. Recently, she published, together with a colleague, a column expressing her deep dissatisfaction with party leader, veteran radical-leftist Jeremy Corbyn.

She was one of the “rebels” who defied Corbyn in December, abstaining in the vote of British bombing attacks on ISIS targets in Syria. At the time, she wrote in a column with a Conservative colleague from the other side of the aisle, that "there is nothing ethical about standing to one side when civilians are being murdered and maimed."

Cox was a staunch supporter of the Palestinian people’s right to a state and a fierce critic of Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza, where she had visited. Supporters of the Palestinian cause in Britain in the name of human rights, are often derided as being single-issue activists who only criticize Israel’s record and that of America and its allies. Cox couldn’t be accused of that.

She was just as vocal in her condemnation of the Assad regime for continuing bloodshed in Syria, its Russian ally, as well as Turkey and Saudi Arabia for arming and supporting Islamist rebels. She began a recent speech in parliament, in which she lambasted her own government and the Obama administration for failing to challenge Assad and the Russians, by saying that “at the end of this short debate, another two Syrian civilians will be dead”. Calling for British intervention on behalf of the Syrian people, not just against ISIS, has become an unfashionable view both on the left and the right of British politics.

Witnesses to her murder said that the alleged killer, Tommy Mair, had shouted “Britain First” as he shot her. Whether he was referring to the tiny, extreme-right party which has called for an end to all immigration and close supervision of Britain’s Muslim citizens, or was just expressing his violent opposition to Cox’s support of refugees, the murder casts a pall over the week leading up to the referendum.

It could well affect the results, which according to the most recent polls, are nearly tied, with a small advantage for those in favor of Britain leaving the EU. Above all, the murder has been a reminder that even in the most orderly of Western democracies, politicians can still be assassinated for standing up for other human beings fleeing killing-fields.