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.
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?
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.”
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.
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.