Before Jo Cox was an MP, she was a wonk. Prior to entering parliament, she was the Head of Policy at Oxfam. During her time working for the charity between 2001 and 2009, she had taken on several roles, including working on campaigns on trade reform, Darfur, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In the recent past, it has been common to bemoan that there are too many career politicians and not enough members of parliament who had experience of ‘the real world’. Unfortunately, this was often code for: there are not enough merchant bankers who still want to be MPs. Jo Cox certainly had life experience: Head of humanitarian campaigns at Oxfam International surely falls into that bracket.
On graduating from Cambridge, Jo Cox worked as a special adviser to Labour MP Joan Walley and later to Glenys Kinnock when she was an MEP in Brussels. Jo Cox also worked as an adviser to Sarah Brown’s campaign on cot deaths. She has been described in press reports that followed her death as ‘an activist’. While not inaccurate, it should be said that her political activity was always shaped by her formation as a policy analyst. She was one of the fortunate few who have the opportunity to serve by risking their knowledge and theoretical positions against the uncertainties of whatever complex demands the world throws up. Her work in parliament on Syria and the refugee crisis exemplified this approach to political action, which starts with evidence and reason and passes through conviction and goes on to make a difference.
Jo Cox was targeted by a killer associated with the extreme right wing of British politics, who when asked to state his name in court replied ‘Death to Traitors, freedom for Britain’. Some will seek to attribute his actions to mental health issues; others will want to draw a clear line between his politics and his murderous intent. The two options are not mutually exclusive. However, while the courts determine the culpability of her killer, it should not be denied post hoc that by the time of Jo Cox’s death political debate in the United Kingdom had passed into the realm of the irrational.
The Leave campaign had long since abandoned any attempt to win a fact-based argument about the economic benefits of the European Union. Instead, it took the decision to make immigration the focus of its campaign, and it was a short step from questioning the government’s record on net migration to the outright racism of UKIP’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster, unveiled on the morning of Jo Cox’s death.
The UK Independence Party and certain tabloid newspapers have for years been responsible for the slow drip that scapegoated immigrants for the bewilderment felt by some at the challenges of the modern world. Last week that drip became a sewage pipe pumped up from the subconscious of Little England. It went alongside a newfound dismissal of all evidence and expert opinion on the economic impact of Brexit. Michael Gove, who once preached the benefits of rigour as Secretary of State for Education, said ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. This seemingly included such traitors as the Governor of the Bank of England and the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
The mendacity of the Leave campaign had moved from silly season stories about the imposition of straight bananas and bans on British vacuum cleaners to the insistence on economic figures that they knew to be untrue, to wild uncosted pledges on the soon-to-be repatriated EU billions. Acting as if they were a government in waiting, the Leave gang set out a manifesto of barely credible spending commitments. They matched misleading statement by outright lie with the equally implausible ‘punishment budget’ proposed by Chancellor George Osborne.
However, as the polls have begun to move in their favour Leave have spun out of control, evincing a grasp of economics and EU law that would make a first-year undergraduate blush: insisting that Turkey was about to join the EU and that simultaneously a post-Brexit UK would still have unfettered and privileged access to the single market. They were riding a tide of unreason that blamed the EU for all the ills of the contemporary global scene and the failures of consecutive governments, while appealing to the basest of fears.
It is not surprising that the Leave campaign should be comfortable with fabrication and inaccuracy. As Mayor of London, Boris Johnson was an advocate of the single market and an amnesty for illegal immigrants. Now with his eye on the Conservative Party leadership, he says the opposite. As a journalist at The Times, he was dismissed for inventing a quote. Nigel Farage recently told a journalist that ‘experts don’t know everything’ and that ‘doctors have got it wrong on smoking’. Michael Gove seems to be suffering from false memory disorder, as his own father was obliged to correct his claim that the EU had destroyed the Gove family business. They have borrowed straight from the Donald Trump playbook of fact-free politics, replacing policies with smears for dissenters and experts while pursuing votes on the basis of the suspicion of the racial other.
It is a defining characteristic of nationalists and demagogues everywhere that they begin by playing on the worries of anyone wounded or gullible enough to listen, offering exorbitant tales of how much better life will be on the other side of the rainbow. The wilder the untruth, the greater their insistence upon it. They offer easy answers to complicated times in which they assure us it is possible to gain all the benefits of the new without giving up any of the things we prize about the old.
Only the most naïve or ideologically myopic could misrecognise the dishonesty of the Leave campaign for a subaltern uprising of the British working class against the elites of Westminster and Brussels. While some may have begun with the noblest of intentions, the Leave campaign has descended into the manipulation of the racist unconscious of Britain by a right-wing clique intent on establishing its own version of elitism regardless of its impact on the economy of the country, the stability of the union, or the future security of Europe. It would be irrational for the British population to embrace this act of national self-harm that handed the keys of the kingdom to those least deserving of the privilege. But at this moment in time, we are beyond reason and choices will be made on Thursday on the basis of feelings and instincts. We will have to keep our fingers crossed.
Perhaps, the death of Jo Cox and the suspension of campaigning that followed may be enough to sober up the British, and in particular the English, electorate. We shall never know, the last days of a referendum are said to benefit a return to the status quo and Remain may yet struggle across the line. However, whether you chose to vote or not, what follows after June 23rd will concern us all. A new politics of untruth has emerged in the UK, where facts are dismissed, and those with knowledge are maligned, where the irrationality of racism combines with the presentation of deliberate, manipulative lies as common sense. It is a far cry from the Enlightenment principles, which for all their obvious problems nevertheless inform the idea of the European Union.
The only way to challenge this poison in the public sphere is through an insistence on the value of evidence, the importance of facts, and the necessity of truth. This is what universities stand for; it is what those who work in them have dedicated their lives to. It is what someone like Jo Cox spent her career striving towards. The only resource we have against the likes of Donald Trump or Nigel Farage is education, and higher education in particular.
Equally, it is education, not the siren call of demagogues and opportunists, that is the only viable hope for those who feel left behind by globalisation and plutocracy. Whatever the future holds for the UK after June 23rd, we will need higher education more than ever. Democracy requires critical intelligence, and we must all remain committed to questioning. The maintenance of civil society requires both civility and an interminable vigilance against ignorance and the politics of hate. In the face of the unreasonable and the irrational, universities still have their uses.
This article was corrected at 9:50am on June 20th. It incorrectly stated that Boris Johnson had been sacked by the Sunday Times, rather than The Times.