At lunchtime yesterday Jo Cox, a young Labour MP, was standing outside a local library, as she did every week, meeting residents in her constituency. It was just an ordinary day in the small town of Birstall near Leeds in Yorkshire. There was nothing to indicate the horrific events that were about to happen.
The MP was suddenly attacked by a man armed with a gun and a knife. She was shot two or three times and then stabbed repeatedly. Her assailant, who was shouting something like “Britain First!” left his victim bleeding on the ground. Police said that the MP had suffered serious injuries and was pronounced dead at 1.48pm. She was a mother of two children.
This brutal murder of a young woman Labour MP has sent a wave of shock and revulsion through British society. The shooting of an MP is a very uncommon thing in Britain and it has shaken the country’s political establishment.
The increasingly heated campaign over the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU has been brought to an abrupt halt. Prime Minister David Cameron cancelled an appearance at a Remain rally in Gibraltar, saying: “It’s right that we are suspending campaigning activity in this referendum and everyone’s thoughts will be with Jo’s family and her constituents at this terrible time.”
Was there a political motive?
Did this murder have a political motive? It is too early to give a definitive answer to this question. Some people were quick to play down this possibility. Rachel Reeves, another Labour MP lost no time in claiming that it was nothing to do with the EU Referendum. But despite its confident tone, this affirmation seems highly unlikely.
Both the Remain and Leave sides immediately condemned the killing and issued statements abhorring violence. We do not doubt the sincerity of these statements. But it begs the question. What role did the anti-immigrant, xenophobic propaganda of the Brexit campaign play in this? That question will not go away and will have to be addressed.
The hasty denials of a political link are contradicted by the known facts of the case. Both the target of the murderer and the timing of his actions are surely not coincidental. Jo Cox, who was elected to parliament as a Labour MP for the Batley and Spen constituency last year, like almost all Labour MPs, was a supporter of the campaign for Britain to remain in the EU. Her husband Brendan and two small children took part in a high-profile pro-EU flotilla on the Thames the day before the shooting.
Her assailant was heard to shout twice “Britain First!” or “Put Britain first” while shooting and stabbing his victim. This cannot be an accident.
Who is Thomas Mair?
The suspect arrested by the police in connection with the murder is a 52-year old unemployed man by the name of Thomas Mair. He lives on a local council estate and is described by neighbours as a quiet, friendly man with a liking for gardening. In other words, he was seen as something of a nonentity. He also has a history of mental illness.
In 2010 Mair volunteered at the Oakwell Hall country park in Birstall after being a patient of the Mirfield-based Pathways Day Centre for adults with mental illness. He told the Huddersfield Examiner at the time: “I can honestly say it has done me more good than all the physiotherapy and medication in the world. Many people who suffer from mental illness are socially isolated and disconnected from society, feelings of worthlessness are also common, mainly caused by long-term unemployment.”
So the picture that emerges is of a loner with mental problems. These facts go some way to providing a general psychological basis for his actions. But they do not by any means exhaust the question of his specific motivation in this case. According to today’s Independent Thomas Mair had long-term links with a far-right group based in London. He was named as “one of the earliest subscribers and supporters of ‘SA Patriot’” in an online publication of the Springbok Club, an organisation which has defended the white supremacist apartheid regime in South Africa.
This group describes itself on its website as being pro-free market capitalism and patriotism and anti-political correctness. And it has been campaigning for many years for Britain to leave the European Union. The lead article for June 2016 Springbok Cyber Newsletter, which was devoted to Britain and the referendum opens thus:
“On Thursday, 23rd June 2016 all British voters will have the opportunity to vote on the future of their country. They can vote either to remain entrapped in the artificial and retrograde European Union, or to regain their sovereign independence...”
The article ends with the following declaration:
“But we should not only be concentrating at the negative aspects of remaining in the EU. Our campaign should be primarily positive and optimistic for a future outside the EU. The motto of the Patriotic Forum (an umbrella grouping of patriotic organisations which the Springbok Club is part of) is ‘Out of Europe and into the World’. There is a golden future waiting for Britain out there once the country returns to its traditional vision of looking towards the Open Seas and its ethnic brothers and sisters in the Commonwealth around the globe. The days ahead will inspire us!”
There is, in fact, another far-right organisation called Britain First, a split-off from the BNP founded five years ago, that has deliberately cultivated a paramilitary image with training camps for members and pledges to take “direct action” against “global Islamic jihad”. It has appealed to former soldiers to join up – with images of guns and skulls on its website and the slogan "Isis hunting club". The site is full of anti-immigrant and negative stories about Muslims.
This group has denied any connection with the murder, which they would “absolutely not condone.” And the fact that Mair shouted "Britain First" as he stabbed and shot his victim may be a coincidence. The extent of Mair’s links with the Springbok Club is not known. We do not even know if he read this editorial.
Further to this, the Southern Poverty Law Centre in the US has pointed out that Thomas Mair was an avid buyer of neo-Nazi literature from the US group National Alliance. They have provided receipts showing Mair was a subscriber to “National Vanguard” and also purchased books and pamphlets worth over US$600. Some of these receipts date back to 1999 and 2003. Amongst the literature he bought from this neo-Nazi group were manuals on bomb and gun making. This is relevant as a witness told Sky News that Mair was carrying a gun that looked like it was "from the First World War or makeshift".
It may well be the case that his links with this, or any other right wing group, were very loose. But that is also often the case with individuals who go out and murder people because they are “inspired” by some jihadi propaganda on the internet. Unbalanced minds can be easily pushed over the brink by extremist messages. In any case it seems very clear that the reactionary chauvinist poison had an effect on his already disturbed mind.
The question must be asked: to what extent was his action influenced by the general mood of anti-immigration xenophobia that has come to be the dominant feature of the referendum campaign, and indeed of British politics in general over the past months and years?
“Put Britain first”
As the referendum campaign has dragged on, with the opinion polls showing a very narrow margin between the “ins” and the “outs”, the tone has become far sharper, the personal attacks become more virulent. In an attempt to answer the argument that Brexit would spell economic disaster, the other side have stepped up the anti-immigration propaganda. The mood becomes uglier and more poisonous by the day.
The right-wing Ukip is banging the anti-immigrant drum most loudly of all. Its leader Nigel Farage proudly unveiled a huge poster with a picture of a long queue of immigrants, implying that Britain is about to be overrun by foreigners. And although the poster was criticised by the mainstream Brexit leaders, they have all moved rapidly in the direction of Farage’s anti-immigrant and xenophobic policies.
There is nothing new about the veiled racist message peddled by Ukip, of course. But there is something new about the way in which this poison, which was hitherto regarded as unacceptable by the mainstream political parties, has now become acceptable.
The tensions in society that have now broken out into the open are the result of years of xenophobic agitation by the Tory leadership, including Cameron and Osborne, who have consistently attempted to peddle the racist myth that immigrants are to blame for the effects of their austerity. The Labour right wing must also shoulder the blame for pandering to this anti-immigrant rhetoric. In this respect, many right-wing politicians in the Remain camp are also responsible for this poisonous atmosphere that has come to envelop British society.
In attempting to distract workers from the real causes behind unemployment and the housing crisis, sections of the ruling class have ended up creating a Frankenstein’s monster of racism and xenophobia that is now out of their control. Right-wing politicians and the Tory press act horrified now in response to the murder of Jo Cox and the behaviour of Nigel Farage, but it is they who have produced the fertile ground in which creatures like UKIP, Britain First, and fascists such as Mair thrive.
In this respect, the murder of Jo Cox is the other side of the coin to the shootings in Orlando, Florida, last weekend. The media blames Islam and immigrants for all the ills in society, and this in turn fuels the fire of fascist and far right vigilantes who see it as their duty to bring about “justice”. The victims, meanwhile, are working class communities and those in the labour movement who fight for real justice.
When Farage was interviewed on Channel Four news recently, he was asked what he thought of the fact that Tory MPs like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, who previously regarded him with contempt, were now repeating his anti-immigration message word for word, he grinned from ear to ear and replied that it made him very happy. No doubt it did.
Michael Gove and Boris Johnson are not principled racists. They are political opportunists who eagerly grasp at any message, racist or not, that helps their campaign. Nigel Farage has obliged them greatly in that respect. There are even rumours that if Boris Johnson becomes leader of the Tory Party, he would be prepared to offer Mr. Farage a position in his government. When this was put to Farage he grinned even more, while saying that he knew nothing of any such proposal – which does not mean it does not exist.
The rightward lurch at the top has even more serious effects at the bottom. The message is constantly repeated that if only Britain got out of the EU all our problems would be solved: there would be plenty of houses and jobs and the NHS would blossom – if only there were no immigrants.
Naturally, this message is expressed in the subtlest of manners. Even Farage says he is “pro-Europe but anti-EU” (he has a German wife). But this message, when it percolates down into the depths of society, loses all pretence at subtlety. In the pubs and bus stops, on the unswept streets of the big cities and council estates with high unemployment, the message is loud and clear: “Leave Europe! Kick out the immigrants!”
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of an increase in verbal aggression against immigrants. The drunk on a bus gives voice to all his frustrations and rage by swearing at a foreigner, emboldened by the fact that he is only saying in plain language what the politicians have told him it is good to say: “Put Britain first!”
It is fortunate that in most cases this xenophobia goes no further than verbal abuse. But where it works its poison on unbalanced minds, the result can be murderous. It is hard to resist the conclusion that the killing of Jo Cox was the result of just such a toxic combination.
The question of Britain’s future relationship with the EU has polarised the nation ahead of the June 23 referendum, with passions riding high on both sides. Polls suggest the Leave campaign has gained support in recent days. And it has done so solely by playing the anti-immigrant card.
The referendum campaign is thus pushing British politics towards a complete fracture. The splits in the Tory Party between Cameron and the pro-EU faction, on the one side, and the right-wing supporters of Brexit, on the other, will not easily be healed. Boris Johnson, one of the main leaders of the Leave campaign, is preparing himself as the next leader of the Tory party if Brexit wins the referendum.
Johnson has said the murder was “absolutely horrific”. So it was. But it was only the tip of a very big and ugly iceberg. This right-wing demagogy of the leaders of Brexit - preceded by years of xenophobia and racism by sections of the ruling class - is stirring up forces that cannot easily be controlled. It is playing on people’s worst instincts: fear of foreigners, xenophobia that borders on racism and at times expresses it openly.
This poses a serious danger to the labour movement. It is divisive and reactionary. And it plays into the hands of the worst enemies of the working class. Even the blindest of the blind can see that the Brexit campaign represents the most reactionary “Little Englander” wing of the British ruling class, the Thatcherite free marketers who now are indistinguishable from the xenophobes of Ukip. There is not an atom of progressive content in either the Brexit campaign or the Remain campaign. They stand for the interests of two wings of the ruling class and the Tory Party. Neither has anything in common with the working class. We can have nothing to do with either. In fact, the leaders of the Remain campaign are adapting their message to that of the anti-immigration Brexiteers, by saying that “even if we remain in the EU we will have to limit the free movement of people”.
The killing of Jo Cox is a warning to the labour movement. It is also a warning to those on the Left who support the Brexit campaign in the mistaken belief that it has some kind of progressive content. No doubt this view is sincerely held. But the way to hell is paved with good intentions. Do you not see that the Brexit campaign is stirring up the most poisonous xenophobia? Can you not understand where all this is leading? And how can you advocate a campaign against racism while continuing to participate in a campaign that is actively fomenting racism?
It is time to think again! The labour movement must stand up and fight back against the scourge of racism and xenophobia that has been propagated by the right wing to divide the working class and distract from the austerity and attacks being carried out against workers and youth. But it must also distance itself from the Remain campaign, which presents remaining in the EU as the better option, because somehow it “defends workers’ rights”.
It is time to boldly put forward a socialist answer to the questions of housing, jobs, and public services. That means the labour movement must oppose both the capitalist EU, the EU of the bankers and monopoly capitalists, and the idea of “British sovereignty on a capitalist basis”. Only a genuine socialist internationalist position can draw out the poison of xenophobia from society’s wounds.