Stranger in a Strange Land

This was not the post I intended to publish today.

The subject is the same – next week’s referendum in the UK on whether or not to remain a member of the European Union – but that’s where the similarities end.

Jo Cox MP
Jo Cox MP, 1974-2016

I had a thousand words ready to go. I was going to follow on the post I wrote after I failed to get registered in time to vote in last year’s General Election, and, a newly registered overseas postal voter, make some compare-and-contrast observations between the half day I’ll never get back, the first and only time I tried to post a letter in Doha, and the ease of sending off my postal vote via Emirates Post here in Abu Dhabi.

Sadly, both versions need to point out that the ‘Leave’ campaign has only offered a message of xenophobic fear and hatred, focused almost exclusively on the issue of immigration. I had written that “it is trying to stoke racist fears of the consequences of keeping our economic borders open to the rest of the EU”.

Tragically, that message seems to have been taken to heart.

“She believed in a better world”

The only reason I didn’t hit publish last night is because I (and you as well, probably) felt a Thursday night more appropriate to switch off and watch some football.

Instead, I found myself holding back tears for a woman, Jo Cox, who – shamefully – I had never heard of until yesterday. A committed member of parliament (MP), doing unglamorous but essential constituency business, gunned down in the street in broad daylight in a quiet village in the north of the UK.

It’s such a tragic loss: a lifelong champion of the oppressed and the persecuted (just 41, her obituary is testament to a lifetime of public service), not to mention a young mother. I couldn’t stop thinking about her two young kids (5 and 3) who would be going to sleep without a mum last night. How do you explain what’s happened to them? What toxic path led to this?

Jo Cox tributes
Jo Cox tributes (c) AFP / Getty Images

In what the police chief who announced her death and who had worked with her closely, called an “isolated incident”, but one with “wider implications”, Jo Cox MP was shot and stabbed in the street by a man who, it is claimed, shouted “put Britain first” as he did so.

Britain First is the name of a far right extremist group that has been busily sowing the seeds of hatred in the shadow of the Leave campaign.

He may also just be a loner with mental health issues, as has also been claimed. These are not binary diagnoses; he could be both. The story will develop; the dumbfounded sense of horror will fade, but Jo Cox’s legacy mustn’t.

Emboldened by the hate-filled rhetoric that fuels the Trump campaign in the US, and concentrated into a short, fixed period of campaigning, the Leave message has been vicious and divisive. Scare stories about open borders and immigrants. It’s toxic. And all in the name of propelling career politicians into higher positions of power, at whatever cost.

The singer / songwriter Billy Bragg summed the situation up beautifully yesterday, when he said “Not every Leave voter is a racist, but every racist will vote Leave.”

“Fight against the hatred that killed her”

Take the extraordinary eloquence of her husband Brendan, mere hours after her death, where he spoke, agonisingly, of her legacy:

“She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her.”

EU Referendum ballot paper
My EU Referendum ballot paper

I can’t imagine the courage and strength it must have taken him to think like that. But he’s right, we need to ‘unite and fight’.

In the UK, our elections and referenda are secret ballots. That enshrines in law your right to vote anonymously. You are under no obligation to reveal how you have voted to anyone. It’s designed to stop people’s votes being influenced at the polling station.

My vote was cast and in the post before yesterday’s tragedy. But my decision was based on stopping precisely the forces of bigotry and isolationism that led to Jo Cox’s death.

So I’m waiving my right to anonymity: I voted to Remain.

Her death – the assassination of a serving MP – was a political act, and demands a political response. Britain needs to stand up and be counted, literally, and stop this poisonous hatred in its tracks.

Tweet by Jo Cox MP 14 June 2016
As tweeted by Jo Cox MP on Tuesday

We seem to hear constantly from the venal, self-serving politicians, who use their position as a stepping stone to achieve their own selfish agendas. But never the Jo Cox’s of this world.

So how about we remember her like this, inspiring young kids like yours and mine?

Or like this, delivering her maiden speech as an MP where she said “we have far more in common than the things that divide us”.

Enough is enough

I’m returning to the UK in a couple of weeks (but just after the referendum, hence the need to register for a postal vote) but I’m not sure I will recognise the place.

Writing as a ‘foreigner’ who lives and works in another country, and who has been shown nothing but kindness, and made to feel nothing but welcome since we moved here, it appalls me that this is the path Britain is heading down.

But hopefully not any more. If I can see any sliver of good that might come from this appalling horror, it’s that’s Britain might say “enough”.

Enough to division, and hatred, and fear. Enough to pointing the finger and blaming the “other”.



PS This blog post, by Alex Massie, and written just a few hours after Cox’s death last night, is an extraordinarily powerful articulation of the path that led to Cox’s death. Highly recommended reading.


8 thoughts on “Stranger in a Strange Land

  1. Victoria Scott June 17, 2016 / 8:19 am

    Nicely written. This was a hideous crime, utterly gut-wrenching. Her poor husband, and poor kids. I am devastated for them. However – I do object to the number of opinion pieces I’ve read today which are using her awful death as a stick to batter Leave campaign supporters with. She believed strongly in democracy, and that is what the referendum is – an exercise in democracy.

    Britain First may have been spewing their usual bile as the campaigns have been facing off against each other (increasingly ludicrously, on both sides) but they are not an official part of the campaign. Lots of people who are going to vote Leave are ordinary people with legitimate reasons for voting out, whether you agree with them or not.

    I do hope we say ‘enough’ to bigotry, but the suggestion that anyone voting Leave is supporting a ‘poisonous’ hatred I believe is unfair, and contrary to what we all believe in – democracy. I prefer to wait until we know more about this guy’s motivations, his mental health and his allegiances before I come to a conclusion about why this happened.

    I agree, the referendum campaign has divided people, and there is a nasty undercurrent in this country at the moment (but it’s not just political – or new – witness those England and Russia supporters earlier this week) – but looking at this event through one particular filter is not something that I believe is helpful.

    And I’m glad you’ve been shown nothing but kindness in the UAE, but we both know that there is a subsection all societies that is less than welcoming, and less than kind.

    (I’m voting, Remain, by the way.)

    • littlecity June 17, 2016 / 4:05 pm

      Thanks for your comment Tory. There are indeed a lot of people with genuine grievances who are voting Leave – (here’s a short, balanced exploration of who they are

      The thing that troubles me is: no matter who wins, but particularly if Remain does, where does the invective and anger whipped up by the campaign go? Becase it’s not just going to disappear. I don’t see anyone offering hope, or solutions, only fear and suspicion. And if that’s what it feels like to me here, what on earth must it be like on the ground over there?

      Good luck – I think you’ll need it…

      • Victoria Scott June 17, 2016 / 6:06 pm

        A good friend of mine who voted in the Scottish referendum said that there was a similar feeling in Scotland before that vote, and that it has disappeared now, for the most part. Let’s hope that’s the case here too.

  2. Emma June 17, 2016 / 8:45 am

    Thank you Nat, beautifully expressed as always. I second everything you’ve said, and worry too about what the outcome of the referendum might lead to. But rest assured Britain is still a (mostly) lovely place, looking forward to welcoming you back soon x

    • littlecity June 17, 2016 / 4:07 pm

      Thanks Emma; looking forward to seeing you, too. Do you still have beer and rain and sarcasm and Private Eye and mini Cheddars? Because those things are nice…

  3. astute angle June 17, 2016 / 5:39 pm

    I’m still voting Leave and the cynical cashing in of this murder by the Remain lobby has just reinforced my view.

    • littlecity June 17, 2016 / 6:58 pm

      Memo to self: Do. Not. Feed. The Troll.

  4. Dunx June 23, 2016 / 7:45 pm

    As always, Nat, well written.
    I guess we will be finding out the result very soon.

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