From farce to tragedy: thoughts on Jo Cox, the referendum and the rise of racism

Duncan Thomas on Jo Cox’s murder, the rise of racism in mainstream political discourse, and the need to build a strong anti-racist movement after the referendum – whatever the result. Together with other groups and activists, rs21 are support marches of solidarity with migrants and refugees on Monday 20 and Friday 24 June. Join us if you can.

Jo Cox 1
Jo Cox’s murder was a horrific climax to a racist campaign. Credit: Adam DC.

Over the last few days, politics in this country has fallen to a new low. The latest tumble in its rush to the gutter started with a performance of early twenty-first century post-satire pantomime, with an extra twist of peculiarly British naffness, as Nigel Farage and Bob Geldof skippered rival fleets up the Thames and engaged one another in an actual naval battle, one dressed as Alan Partridge while the other screamed obscenities through a loudspeaker. As The Guardian reported:

“Before it was over, Farage’s flotilla of angry trawlermen campaigning for leave had drenched Geldof’s boat with hoses and angrily boarded it midstream to the dismay of the river authorities. Geldof’s boat almost shredded the eardrums of those on Farage’s vessel with a high decibel blast of 60s pop music; Geldof called Farage “a fraud” and flicked him the V sign.”

Rousing stuff. Not to be outdone, Cameron revealed Bremain’s secret weapon: Jeremy Clarkson. A kind of pre-figurative Beta-version Farage-lite, his very own bargain-bin, John-Bull petty racist, no doubt imagined to somehow “connect” to the Tories’ vision of the British Working Classâ„¢ with his straight-talking, no-nonsense “jokes” about truck drivers murdering prostitutes and Mexican food looking like sick.

All very pathetic; even sort of laughable, if one doesn’t think too much about the wider, intensely depressing, implications. But then things once again got very dark, very quickly, even before the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox. Reminding us that he is not exclusively a buffoon, Farage revealed his latest campaign poster, not so much a dog-whistle as a foghorn. “Breaking Point: the EU has failed us all”, says the slogan, “we must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders”.

That these words make absolutely no sense – superimposed as they are over an image of clearly non-European refugees, whose passage is blocked precisely by the EU’s borders before they can even think about getting to Albion’s misty shores – is besides the point. If we leave, Farage essentially tells us, if we “take control”, we can kill, detain and deport even more of these brown-skinned terrorist parasites, mopping up the few who manage to run the gauntlet of Fortress Europe to reach the Great British Promised Land. As others have pointed out, the poster’s resemblance to Nazi propaganda is uncanny – not, I am sure, through any grand design on UKIP’s part, but simply because racist demagogic scum will always end up riffing on the same themes.

UKIP poster

Nazi film
Spot the difference: UKIP and Nazi propaganda

And then, of course, the brutal climax. I admit to knowing almost nothing about Jo Cox before her death, but it seems clear that she was killed for simply trying to be a decent person, a figure of humanity, compassion and principles within the cesspool of British political life, who refused to join the rush to pin all our society’s problems on the most vulnerable. She was by all accounts a diligent and caring MP, who had campaigned all her life for causes she believed in. Those involved in work around Palestine and Syria have been particularly vocal in praising her contributions. Her website shows she consistently resisted attacks on the BDS campaign and protested against Israel’s persecution of Palestinian children in military courts, as well as campaigning for food rather than bombs to be dropped on Syrian civilians.

With her death, and this whole sordid referendum, a particularly arrogant and ironically chauvinistic part of our national self-image must also surely be buried once and for all: that “the British, particularly the English, are the most tolerant race on Earth”. These particular words were written by Richard Littlejohn, and are thus ipso facto total nonsense, but in some form this sentiment lies deep in our national psyche, drummed into us from an early age.

We are a moderate, understanding people. We don’t do extremes; we’ve never had a revolution, but we saved the world from fascism. Our empire was actually acquired by accident and was basically great for all concerned, and we should probably bring it back; we “never had slavery here” and, by the way, did you know that curry is now considered our national dish? We’re not perfect, but we’re still a “beacon to the world”, and you must admit that we aren’t as bad as the French, or the Germans, or the Belgians, or the Russians, or the Americans, or the South Africans, or the Australians, or any of those other horrible, stupid, racist foreign people who lack our level-headed liberal temperament towards outsiders and other cultures.

Tens of millions of our old colonial subjects and more recent migrants to this country could tell you that this insidiously enabling self-infatuation was always rubbish, especially those who have lost loved ones in similar, though less-reported, incidents to Jo Cox’s murder. But at least in my adult memory, this is a darker period than most, with the featureless, numbing void of “Third Way” neoliberal post-politics collapsing into angry, howling reactionism.

So in quick succession, over a period of just a few days, we saw the full repertoire of contemporary British public politics: the self-indulgent charade on the Thames; the campaign poster’s callous dehumanisation of refugees; the final, murderous explosion of hatred against someone who refused to play the game.

Doubtless, there is no straightforward, mechanical connection between the three. And yet each, in its own way, represents an ever more extreme reaction to the reality of post-democracy and the (entirely justified) breakdown of trust in representative politics: the first, a flight of public figures into the ether of entertainment, spin and stunt; the second, a more calculating and irresponsible attempt by the political class to bridge the gulf they have created between themselves and the mass of people, pushed into ever greater precarity through the whole-scale, neoliberal dismantling of the post-war class compromise; the third, a concentrated expression of the ensuing anti-political sentiment, mediated through the darkest racism that, shade by shade, has been brought into the political mainstream.

It is easy to lay the blame for this degeneration wholly at the door or the those running the “Leave” campaign, principally UKIP, as recent articles in The Spectator and The Guardian have done. Certainly, Farage and his gang have led the way in making everyday British racism more ugly and openly aggressive. But the thoughtful and reflective tone that these articles attempt to strike is fatally undermined by their complete lack of engagement with the wider swamp in which these quickly identifiable villains swim.

As noted above, the lines we need to draw do not travel in a straight line from A to B. I suppose there’s even a chance, as the Daily Mail would have us believe, that this was just a “senseless tragedy” with no political implications; that Thomas Mair, Jo Cox’s killer, was simply someone with mental health problems who enjoyed gardening and was polite to his neighbours, and just accidentally subscribed to fascist magazines for decades and randomly learned how to build his own gun and by pure chance regularly hurled racist abuse at Asian cabbies, rather than, say, at bulldogs or neo-nazi skinheads or Her Majesty’s Royal Post Boxes.

But it seems rather more likely that, whatever influence his mental health had or did not have on his actions, his beliefs and choice of target were shaped and directed in some way by the outside world, and not simply by the extreme far right. As David Cameron himself said in a speech on radicalisation last year:

You don’t have to support violence to subscribe to certain intolerant ideas which create a climate in which extremists can flourish. Ideas which actively promote discrimination, sectarianism and segregation.”

Of course, he was talking about Islamist extremism, which obviously has completely different rules. But let’s say that there were certain “intolerant ideas” floating around, which, although they didn’t openly advocate violence, nonetheless made Mair’s more extreme beliefs seem more acceptable and accepted, to the point that he could decide that assassinating an anti-racist MP in defence of his country was the right thing to do. What might these ideas look like?

They might include Britain First’s explicit denunciation of Sadiq Khan as an “Islamist” and their threats to carry out “direct action” against him where he “lives, works and prays“. Or UKIP council candidate Ken Chapman writing that “islam is a cancer that needs eradicating multiculturism does not work in this country clear them all off to the desert with their camals that’s their way of life”. Or Godfrey Bloom, an MEP from the same party, calling on the government to stop sending aid to “bongo bongo land”, or a wealth of other similar statements from a party that still insists with a straight face that it’s definitely not racist.

We might also think that the idea that migrants are a horde of dangerous barbarians could be further cemented by people in prominent public positions, such as the Prime Minister, referring to them as a “swarm”. Or the Labour Party producing mugs that promise to be “tough on immigration”, allowing you to quotidianise and normalise your racism over the daily tea ritual that every British citizen must perform under threat of deportation. Or both main parties in the Remain campaign, the “progressive” side of the current debate, reassuring people that even if we stay in the EU, we’ll do everything we can to end internal freedom of movement – and threatening that if we leave, that “bunch of migrants” left to choose between freezing filth and a purpose-built concentration camp in Calais will have to be “processed” this side of the white cliffs.

Jo Cox 2
A placard with the words of Jo Cox’s husband at a vigil. Credit: Adam DC.

The truth is that an increasingly ugly racism has gained ground and become a normal part of public conversation not primarily because of tiny, pathetic neo-nazi cells, but because it has become convenient for politicians and their friends in the media to isolate a particular group of people, demonise them, and present them as the cause of all our problems. In the words of the excellent Gary Younge, since the infamous 1964 Smethwick election campaign, “the Tories understand that fear of immigration is how they get votes; Labour understand that’s how they lose them“. To alter this calculation would require fundamental changes in how economic resources and political power are distributed and controlled – something the Tories have no wish for and Labour, at least until Corbyn’s election, have had no stomach for.

Don’t have a job? That’s because of immigration, not mass de-industrialisation with nothing to replace it. Shit wages? Immigrants push them down, not bosses taking advantage of the decline of unions. Don’t have a house? Immigrants take them, forget about the enforced transfer of our country’s public housing stock to the private sector. Just too many immigrants? We’ll keep them out, but let’s not talk about our ageing population or the vast, systematic global transfer of wealth, the countless countries we’ve destroyed through resource extraction, invasions, incompetence or indifference. If such messages are drummed home, day after day, year after year by the ruling class, if it becomes a major plank of how they try to maintain hegemony, it is perhaps not entirely surprising if sections of British workers turn against one of the few groups in society even more fucked than they are.

The question is not so much whether these things caused the murder of Jo Cox directly, but rather, whether we think it would have happened without the ratcheting up of this general, poisonous atmosphere, at the precise moment in which it has reached its vile crescendo. The EU referendum has been a thoroughly depressing and disturbing measure of where we’re at. Both sides in the mainstream debate have been guilty of obscene rhetoric; both official campaigns are arguing for institutions – the European Union + the British state/the British state in glorious isolation – which are deeply racist and highly oppressive. For reasons that will doubtless take a while to understand, the left has been largely absent from the mainstream debate, despite attempts by both the left Leave and Remain sides to gain a foothold.

As a consequence, there is no unambiguous anti-racist vote; equally, neither vote automatically equates to support for racism or endorsement of the grotesque official spokespeople, whether that of the “Leave” mob or the EU itself.  Good and bad arguments can and have been made on each side; sometimes, however, there is a sense that our frustrations with not managing to intervene successfully in the mainstream discussion have been turned inwards; that the difficulty in accepting that there is no real good outcome in the immediate term, that this referendum is a genuinely hard decision for the left, has led people on all sides to adopt positions and use rhetoric against comrades that we might regret.

What seems clear is that, whatever the outcome of the vote, our most urgent task is to build a strong and broad anti-racist movement. “Politicising” Cox’s murder to call for this is not crass or insensitive, but entirely in keeping with how she lived her life and how her husband wishes us react, asking that we “all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her“. We may also note in passing that attempts to “de-politicise” what seems more and more like an assassination is in its own way just as “political” as anything written here: its function is to suppress debate, to seal the incident off from any wider societal trends, government policies or political discourse.

Our choice is not between a political and a non-political interpretation; it is between a response that either furthers the goals Cox worked for, or sweeps them under the carpet. The words of Leeds Anti Fascist Network in response to Cox’s murder largely apply not only fascism, but to racism more generally:

“Fascism is an ideology that feeds off the genuine concerns of working class communities – low pay, the housing crisis, a lack of control and self-determination – and places the blame at the feet of smaller disadvantaged groups, such as migrants, people of colour, minority faiths, the LGBT community, etc. It is capitalism’s great trick of misdirection – urging us to fight amongst ourselves instead of against the powers that oppress us all, with frequent tragic results. Fascism must be opposed whenever and wherever it appears: only through strong and determined working class organisation can we defeat hate, defeat poverty, and fight for a better life for all.”

Building that kind of organisation is a large task, but an essential one. Without it, all our various positions on the referendum, no matter how well argued, will be worth precisely nothing.


Together with other groups and activists, rs21 are support marches of solidarity with migrants and refugees on Monday 20 and Friday 24 June. Join us if you can.


  1. Talking of the goals she fought for.
    ‘Jo Cox, the Labour MP who has raised the issue of airdrops most consistently, said: “If the words of the foreign secretary and the international community don’t turn to action, if we don’t see aid getting in by road or by air, then we’ve reached a new low making empty promises to starving children.” ‘


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here