PARLIAMENT met in London Monday, so that MPs of every party could express their horror and disgust at the murder last Thursday of their colleague Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire. And on Monday everybody did, including the leaders of the Brexit campaign, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. But here’s the odd thing: up to that point, the Brexit leaders had said nothing about it.
Nothing. Not a word, for more than three days. The political campaign for the referendum today on Britain’s continued membership in the European Union was immediately suspended for two days after Cox’s murder, but other politicians didn’t go to ground like Johson, Gove and their friends.
Prime Minister David Cameron, the leader of Johnson and Gove’s own Conservative Party, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, and a host of their fellow members of parliament gathered in Parliament Square on Friday to light candles and lay flowers in tribute to the slain MP, but the Brexit leaders were conspicuous by their absence.
Cameron, Corbyn and many other senior politicians went on TV to condemn what had happened, but Johnson, Gove and their rather embarrassing ally Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), did not (and you may be sure that they were asked to – that’s what journalists do). They simply vanished from public view, without so much as a ritual statement that their “thoughts and prayers” were with Jo Cox’s family.
There are only two possible explanations for this curious non-event. One is that space aliens abducted Johnson, Gove and Farage on Thursday for their usual nefarious purposes, and returned them to Earth on Sunday with their memories wiped clean of anal probes (for otherwise they would surely have mentioned it). The other is that their media advisers told them that the only safe course was to say nothing.
The Brexiteers were in a difficult position, because Jo Cox was a high-profile campaigner for Remain, the campaign urging Britons to stay in the EU, and the man who killed her, Tommy Mair, was clearly of the opposite persuasion. As he shot and stabbed her, according to eyewitnesses, he was shouting “Britain first” or “Put Britain first”.
His motive became even clearer on Saturday, when he was brought before a judge to be charged. Asked to state his name, he replied that it is “Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain.” The second half of this slogan is, of course, at the heart of the “Leave” campaign’s argument for Brexit.
Obviously Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage knew nothing about Mair’s intentions, nor approved of them in any way. But people could reasonably argue that the increasingly nasty tone of the “Leave” campaign may have served as a trigger for Mair’s crime.
In the early stages of the campaign the debate was mostly about the relative economic advantages of leaving or staying in the EU, but the “Leave” side clearly lost that argument, and shifted the debate instead onto the hot-button topic of immigration.
This involved a good deal of lying, like the ridiculous Leave claim that Turkey was shortly going to become an EU member, giving 70 million Turks the right to move to Britain. (Turkey has no realistic chance of becoming an EU member in the foreseeable future, and if it ever did fulfill the entrance requirements Britain could simply veto it.)
The dog-whistle racism of Leave’s anti-immigration campaign was at its worst in a poster that UKIP’s Nigel Farage unveiled just two hours before Cox was murdered, showing an endless column of young men of Middle Eastern appearance marching into Europe and captioned “Breaking Point”. In other words, quit the EU or Britain too will be drowned in a sea of Muslim fake refugees.
The poster was immediately condemned even by Farage’s allies (Michael Gove said he “shuddered” when he saw it) – but Gove did NOT go on to say that Middle Eastern refugees who are let in by other EU countries do not gain the right to enter Britain. To admit that would undermine the whole anti-immigrant strategy of the Leave campaign.
That’s something Gove didn’t want to be questioned on. All the more did he not want to be questioned on possible causal links between the Leave campaign’s general strategy of claiming that the British people are enslaved by faceless “EU bureaucrats in Brussels” and Mair’s cry of “Freedom for Britain”. Neither did any of his Leave colleagues.
So the Brexit leaders took their media managers’ advice and hid themselves away after the assassination of Jo Cox. When Tommy Mair gave his name as “Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain” in court on Saturday, they hid for another day, fearing guilt by association.
Now they are back out in the open, hoping nobody noticed their absence. And maybe they didn’t, because the British media certainly abstained from comment on it.
But it is also possible that quite a few ordinary voters did notice it, and drew their own conclusions from it. We’ll find out on Friday.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.