The murder of Labor MP Jo Cox denotes a new low in the vicious battle of the Brexit. Even if the connection between the death of the young parliamentarian and her campaigning for “Remain” is only tenuous, it is the constant drip-feed of hatred against politicians fostered by the “Leave” supporters that seems to give license to delusional individuals to kill those they are taught to despise.
This killing creates another layer in the complex web of arguments and emotions that obscure the issue at stake. Britain’s decision to leave or remain in the European Union affects all of us. A Brexit could foster a descent into nationalism and authoritarian rule that wrecks our political foundations. It could be the biggest mistake in recent history.
“Leave” campaigners like Nigel Farage are Britain’s answer to the populist right in other European countries. He is what Marine Le Pen is for France: a politician milking the system he denounces, only to gain power for himself. But the picture is more varied: it contains shameless careerists like Boris Johnson, who hopes to inherit the premiership from a luckless David Cameron and may well wreck his own Conservative Party in the process. And there is a Michael Gove from its anti-European wing who promotes Brexit like a boy scout embarking on a brave new adventure.
What unites these unlikely allies however is a common message: take a leap into the unknown and gain a better future. “Take control” is their central slogan and with it, they are selling an illusion to people who see themselves as the losers in globalization. They can be easily turned against the European Union, because a hostile press has, for decades, painted Brussels as the source of all evil. These are voters in the economically depressed north of Britain and in its deprived seaside towns: people who have lost jobs, who have been overwhelmed by social change and who feel the need to strike back.
It’s not about facts
The “Leave” campaign has operated with a constant stream of false statistics, figures and outright lies. Michael Gove even lied about the economic history of his own family only to make a point against Europe.
But this does not matter at all, because the fight is not about facts, it is about feelings. People want to have their beliefs confirmed, not listen to the other side. Public debates on TV seemed to prove the point as they descended into political mud-wrestling.
All rational argument for the European Union is therefore largely lost. The governor of the Bank of England, respected academics, European heads of government and CEOs of large corporations have all advised, begged and cajoled British voters to remain. But the “Leave” campaign makes them out to be members of the same elite that are supposedly robbing people of their right to determine their own fate. After Brexit, life will become more difficult and more insecure, but none of this seems to surmount the heady feeling of hitting out against a system that is being painted as an enemy of the British people.
Will Britain follow the pied piper?
At this point, nothing can be said and done to change the course of events. Some believe that the death of Jo Cox might give people pause to reconsider their decision. If British voters decide to leave Europe, it will affect not only their own future but all of us. The EU has, since it was founded, largely been a force for good. But that has become a deeply unpopular belief.
What remains now is only hope. Hope that voters will, at the last moment in the polling booth, shy away from destruction. Hope that the innate common sense of British people will triumph over the tunes of the modern pied pipers who promise golden rainbows. Nobody can yet fully envisage the consequences of a vote for Brexit – let us hope we do not have to find out.