I think I speak for all but one member of this country, when I say that the murder of Jo Cox has shocked me to my core. For all the protestations of those one or two of my Facebook friends that still have Lebanese flags for profile pictures, violence is more shocking when it happens in your backyard, and more shocking still when it’s unexpected. The last time an MP was killed in office was in 1990, when Ian Gow was blown up by the Provisional IRA, who also claimed the lives of Sir Anthony Berry, Airey Neave, and Lord Louis Mountbatton. 26 years on, this feels like a bolt from the blue.
Jo Cox’s husband, Brendan, has released a statement in her memory, urging every right-minded citizen to ‘fight against the hatred that killed her’. We know roughly the hatred he’s talking about: hostility towards immigrants, minorities, and the British liberals who support them. This is a noble cause to contest in her name, and there are plenty who can articulate its importance far better than I.
But how about hatred of politicians?
Every politician knows that in the course of their careers, they’ll face some pretty serious antipathy. One of the greatest assets of British democracy is the free and easy scrutiny we afford our leaders, and most ordinary natives have at least a few names they love dragging through the mud. As the most public of all public figures politicians are also meat and drink for ‘internet trolling’ – where whole armadas of keyboard-wielding bottom-feeders vent their frustrated imaginations all over innocent Twitter accounts. It’s quite helpful for the rest of us really: if Johnny McNeckbeard couldn’t get his deep, illicit thrills from sending Michael Gove a picture of some dog poo, and chortling loudly to an empty room, then he might actually have to leave his house and sit next to me on the bus. As it is my poor old MP deals with it. It’s what she signed up for.
But recently it’s gone way, way too far. A recent poll showed that politicians in general are the least trusted profession in the entire country – below bankers, estate agents, and (somehow) government ministers. Buzzphrase after buzzphrase is trotted out in every online debate: ‘in it for themselves’, ‘political elites’, ‘as bad as each other’ – fanning the populist flames that have been building since Blair. Never has it been easier or more fashionable to blame your problems on ‘the fucking government’, while the increased polarisation of our political parties breeds more hate and division by the day. All of this is reflected by drooling tabloid journalists, who compound this visceral and accusatory discourse with a sensationalist delight that would look opportunistic on a soapbox. Popular disgust for politicians now rivals only paedophiles, and that woman who put her cat in a wheelie-bin.
And boy has the EU referendum thrown fuel on the fire. Personal attacks are flying in all directions while catastrophizing abounds – David Cameron suggested post-leave Europe could descend into war; Boris Johnson compared the EU to Nazi Germany; and a Leave leaflet came through my door showing on a map where Iraq and Syria are in relation to Turkey. Meanwhile studies show unprecedented levels of public ignorance over the real facts and figures, obscured by the Donald Trump-esque smokescreen of hyped-up puffery. The unspeakable events of Jo Cox’s murder have shocked the entire nation, but perhaps more shocking still is that fact that, in the current climate, I’m not quite as surprised as I’d like to be.
When you stir up populist rhetoric and pounce on every little division, there will always be those who take it too far. There’s something profoundly theatrical about it all. Like Romeo and Juliet and Chekhov’s The Seagull – as the sound and fury builds in a crescendo of bellicose posturing it finally spills over into violence, and all sides are given a harrowing reminder of what should have united them all along.
This heinous crime is obviously not the fault of Nigel Farage, but Napoleonic rhetoric does not exist in a vacuum. When you tell people enough times that their country is being betrayed – and that they should be angry, really angry – some of them are liable to take you at your word. And to those on the left clucking and squawking that only the far-right could have spawned this monstrous act, I remember the poisonous, self-aggrandizing vitriol that choked Twitter after the last election. You’ve created this climate as much as anyone.
Perhaps, though, something good can come of all this tragedy. One message has been echoed by many first-time readers of Jo Cox’s life and career: ‘I didn’t know there were people like her in parliament’. Eulogised equally by her constituents and her parliamentary colleagues, Jo Cox was very clearly a woman that did not deserve the instinctive dislike associated with her profession, or the suspicion of the so-called ‘duck house generation’. One hopes she can be a figurehead, a messianic symbol perhaps, for the silent majority of dedicated public servants.
So please, criticise David Cameron: set his speeches to the Pulp song ‘Common People’; tweet him pictures of sausages in condoms; print out his picture and cover it with carefully positioned Miss Piggys. That’s all fine.
And criticise Jeremy Corbyn: Photoshop his face onto Leninist propaganda; send him a map with a large ‘Go Here’ arrow pointing to Savile Row; point out that maybe, just maybe, the IRA weren’t all good. That’s also fine. Go for it.
But the House of Commons is made up of 650 individuals from 10 different political parties, many of whom work extremely hard – for their local constituencies, for the principles that they believe in, and for salaries that, whatever the Daily Express might say, are lower than a lot of them could earn in the private sector. Simply put, many of them are good people.
So please, focus on specifics, and stop vilifying ‘politicians’. You elected them.