This has been our septimana horribilis. On Sunday, we paused to mourn 49 victims of homophobic, Islamist terrorism in Orlando. As I attempted to work through my grief and put the hate in context, never did I imagine I would end the week doing the exact same thing for another brutal attack on freedom and democracy.
Yet here we are. “Oh God, no,” were my exact words when news broke that Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, died following an attack by a far-right terrorist whom eyewitnesses claim shouted “Britain First!” Since then, people from across the political spectrum have eulogised Jo for the stalwart humanitarian and outstanding parliamentarian she was, and could have been.
It was hate that took 49 lives in Orlando, and it was hate that killed Jo. In the immediacy after her attack, many on the British right cautioned us not to jump to conclusions. “We don’t know why he did it,” they said, “nothing has been determined.” A man shooting a left-wing politician while shouting a far-right slogan could be purely coincidental and not at all political, they insisted, instead focusing on the alleged gunman’s mental health.
They can’t do that anymore. Yesterday in court, the suspect himself made that painfully clear. He gave his name as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” Whelp.
After the murder of fusilier Lee Rigby, the right-wing press, and indeed many on the British right, were quick to condemn it for what it was: an Islamist terrorist attack. The murderers made no secret of their motives, even on the witness stand. Rigby was killed by two men, at least one of whom had a long, documented history of mental illness. Coverage rarely, if ever, focused on that. Instead, “moderate Muslims” were called on to condemn the attack and to do more to root out the scourge of radicalism from their communities.
Now, in circumstances that eerily mirror Rigby’s murder, the British right finds itself in an incredible act of political contortion, trying to avoid the same treatment it gave Muslims three years ago. The fact is, the British right, particularly the Brexiters, do have something to answer for here. And it needs to be said.
No one who observes British politics, whether from within the Westminster bubble or from across the Atlantic, can sincerely say that the EU referendum hasn’t brought out the worst in people and politicians. The Brexit campaign has, from the start, been framed as a fight for the very survival of the British nation and people. “Take our country back!” they exclaim, lamenting the “swarms of migrants” coming over from Europe and beyond. To be pro-Brexit has been equated to being pro-British, and to be pro-Europe is unpatriotic.
As someone who has remained neutral in this campaign (though did argue an American and socialist case for Brexit on Radio 5), I have been appalled at the dog-whistle politics and even overt racism that has come from the Leave camp. From Farage’s “BREAKING POINT!” poster to Boris Johnson’s racist comments about Barack Obama, the Leave campaign has used white nationalist imagery and coded language throughout. Indeed, Boris’ comments about America’s “part-Kenyan” president echo those used by racists such as Donald Trump to insist Obama’s ancestry makes him un-American. Unsurprising, really, given that so many of the Brexiters feel that people with ties to foreign lands aren’t proper Brits. Not really.
This talk of losing control of the nation, of losing sovereignty, of losing national identity and security and border control, has been as jingoistic as it has been fascistic. It is a climate in which to be anything but a strident Leaver has been to be a traitor to Queen and Country. None of us exist in a bubble. You can only scare people for so long before some rogue agent takes matters into his own hands. The tone and tenor of this campaign has led to a vitriol previously unimaginable. I’ve written about British politics since 2009. I’ve seen more racism, more xenophobia, and more bigotry in the past seven weeks than in the past seven years combined. The hatefulness of the far right has hit a boiling point, and it was inevitable that someone would boil over the pot and into gunfire.
The right needs to own this. The Leave campaign needs to own it. No, not everyone on who is for Brexit is a bigot. Just as there is a difference between Islamism and Islam, or Judaism and Zionism, there is a difference between Brexit and bigotry. I have many people I love dearly who sincerely believe Britain will be better off outside the EU. But the Leave campaign has not only tolerated, but embraced, this nationalistic fervour in both the cynical hope that the public will be scared enough to vote Out, and in some more nefarious instances in the sincere belief that actually, immigrants are the devil.
Some of my right-wing friends have claimed Jo Cox’s assassination is being tastelessly exploited for political gain. This is simply not true. Pointing out the political nature of the attack is not political point scoring. Correctly stating facts is not propaganda. Jo Cox was killed because she is—was—a left-wing, pro-Europe internationalist. She was killed by a far-right, anti-immigrant nationalist. These two things are not mutually exclusive. They are intrinsically and inextricably connected.
This isn’t to let my fellow leftists off the hook, either. For years we have sneered at white working class concerns, particularly over immigration. From Gordon Brown’s “bigoted woman” to true-but-tired memes castigating rural communities and small towns with few immigrants for being anti-immigrant, we’ve ceded the discourse to Nigel Farage and the far-right. If the traditional home of the working class is no longer hospitable, of course they’re going to look somewhere else.
If we dismiss their concerns as pure ignorance instead of acknowledging them and explaining an alternative view—that it’s not immigrants what done it, but years of austerity and globalisation bolstered by unmitigated free trade and lack of economic redevelopment—then it only makes sense that they would look elsewhere. It is not necessarily bigoted to be concerned over immigration, but if we don’t say that, it’s no wonder that those concerned over immigration turn to bigots.
We have poisoned this well too. From calling Tories and Tony Blair fascists to claiming Iain Duncan Smith is a murderer to the hateful misogyny directed at everyone from Stella Creasy to Liz Kendall to Priti Patel, we need to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with ourselves as well. I’m including myself in this. I have not always lived up to my own standards, something I’m quietly reflecting on. We’re not perfect. We’ve reached fever pitch, too, and it’s time for all of us to simmer down.
There’s a reason the second largest party is called the Opposition and not the enemy. As Jo herself said in her maiden speech, “we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.” This week has been a tragic reminder of how fragile that unity is, and how British democracy only functions if we all approach political discourse with civility, respect, and the humanity of our opponents squarely in mind. Somehow, we’ve lost sight of that, and a brilliant young MP is dead because of it. We can’t get Jo back, but I hope to God we can get our decency back.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is journalist and cultural critic who writes about British politics and LGBT rights. His work has appeared at Salon, The Daily Dot, The Advocate, Pink News, and elsewhere. He founded The Curious American in 2013. He lives in Chicago.