The EU referendum debate first deteriorated considerably yesterday when Nigel Farage launched his latest pro-Leave poster – a shockingly racist message and image that seemed at the time about the lowest British politics could sink to. Screaming ‘BREAKING POINT’ against a picture of hundreds of Middle-Eastern refugees in a state of plight: the message was clear enough.
It has already been compared to Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and widely condemned in the media (and hopefully by most people who have seen it).
But then the campaigns were suspended after it emerged that Labour MP Jo Cox was shot and stabbed outside her constituency surgery by a man reportedly shouting “Britain first”. The popular MP was a rising star from the 2015 intake, a former campaigner and top policy wonk at Oxfam; she had also been highly vocal in the campaign for Britain to remain in the EU.
British politics – and all reasonable people everywhere – are mourning her tragic murder. What it might say about the state of our democracy is highly unsettling. The referendum had already stoked deep division in the public discourse, but this is an unimaginable, horrific new low. Often confronted by angry constituents and difficult situations, MPs are vulnerable: they are highly visible members of their community and a target for people’s grievances. But a fatal attack like this – on the job – is almost unprecedented. It is an assault on our democracy which is built on the rule of law and depends on the peaceful cooperation of all citizens. The last sitting MP to be killed was Ian Gow – assassinated by the IRA in 1990.
Alex Massie last night argued in The Spectator that although Farage and co. are not directly responsible for Cox’ death, “When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks. When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don’t be surprised if someone takes you at your word.”
The referendum campaign was dragging British politics down to new depths before yesterday. The way in which evidence and facts have been treated, and the toxic personal nature of much of the conversation, should be cause for national embarrassment. That the situation might in any way have contributed to the tragic murder of a politician – and by all accounts a decent, widely adored mother of two – will surely consign this period to history as one of the darker moments of our political and civic lives. We can now only hope that the investigation will find another motive or reason for yesterday’s events.
A poll for THE showed yesterday that nine out of ten in the HE sector are voting to Remain. Every other national poll is showing that Leave is on course for victory next week. With the fate of universities tied to the success of the UK in the world, with evidence, facts and reason completely departing the political discourse, with democracy itself threatened by Jo Cox’s murder, it seems incumbent this morning on universities – their workers, leaders, students, staff and friends – to unite behind a more positive vision for society and the role that we play in it. Universities and education must always be part of the solution, driving us forward to a better place. Nine out of ten HE sector workers will not turn the tide alone, but that 90% and the hundreds of thousands of people that they touch just might stand a chance.