Jo Cox’s murder was a moment of terrible clarity — we cannot ignore nationalist extremism

Forces we had hoped were extinct are now resurgent


From 1979 to 1991, four MPs were killed by militant Irish republicans.

In the same period the British government implemented countless policies designed to deal with the threat of republican militancy. Some were effective, many others weren’t.

But in the face of a sustained threat to members of parliament and to ordinary members of the public, no one questioned the need for government response. No one suggested that the deaths of Airey Neave, Robert Bradford, Anthony Berry and Ian Gow were freak incidents or inexplicable tragedies.

The killers announced a political motivation, and were taken at their word.

We now know, beyond any doubt, that the killer of Jo Cox was a white supremacist neo-Nazi. Since the case has concluded, there is no legal barrier to acknowledging that her death was the result of far right nationalist extremism.

We know that, in the weeks and months following the attack, hundreds of others have been the victims of racist hate crime. As a result of increasingly powerful xenophobic ideology, immigrants and people of colour (in the UK, the US and across Europe) are facing a serious and sustained threat to their safety.

So where is the government response? When is the Cobra meeting? When can we expect Theresa May to issue a statement condemning far-right extremism? When will the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Express issue apologies for fanning the flames of this extremist surge and change their editorial policies?

When will Nigel Farage acknowledge that his ‘Breaking Point’ poster was abhorrent? When will the British government stop kowtowing to an American president-elect who happily affiliates himself with the so-called ‘alt-right’, who has employed a white supremacist as his chief strategist?

Since her death, the words of Cox’s maiden speech — ‘we have far more in common with each other than things that divide us‘ — have been endlessly repeated, to the point that they are at risk of being rendered meaningless, robbed of their political significance.

Cox wasn’t trying to elide the fact that Batley and Spen is divided, Yorkshire is divided, the UK is divided. In her support for high levels of immigration, and for Britain’s membership of the EU, she knew she was placing herself at odds with many of her constituents.

Since the referendum, her colleagues from similar parts of the country who hold similar views have been accused of disrespecting democracy, have been derided as members of an out-of-touch liberal elite, are considered enemies of the people.

‘Just listen to the way a lot of politicians and commentators talk about the public,’ Theresa May said in her Tory conference speech.

‘They find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal, your attachment to your job security inconvenient. They find the fact that more than seventeen million voters decided to leave the European Union simply bewildering.’

The so-called elites that May is so intent on smearing are politicians with many of the same values and views as Cox. Of course, she cannot be accused of inciting violence, but the prime minister has willfully encouraged division in service of her own political ends.

And that’s dangerous. Because the true message of Cox’s words is that overcoming division and building a tolerant society is hard work. Progress doesn’t happen on its own, it needs to be nurtured. Often, it needs to be fought for.

Right now, in Britain, the United States and much of Europe, progress has stalled. Worse than that, we’re going backwards. Xenophobia is resurgent — be it racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, misogyny, queerphobia or ableism — and too many politicians are pandering to it rather than resisting it.

Their refusal to acknowledge the scale of the crisis is so entrenched that even the murder of a colleague by a nationalist extremist has done nothing to shift the tone.

The Cox family, understandably, have chosen to emphasise Jo’s achievements in life rather than the nature of her death.

But politicians and commentators cannot afford to do the same. Her murder was a moment of terrible clarity — one catastrophic incident among many lower-profile ones — demonstrating that forces we hoped were extinct are alive and well, and cannot be ignored.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.