The tragic assassination of Jo Cox is a stark reminder of that famous saying by Wilson “a week is a long time in politics”. In this case an hour and a knife may have been enough.
Four days ago, Polly Toynbee in a Guardian article wrote that the Brexit supporters “may have unleashed furies even they cannot control”. The assassination of Jo Cox is such a fury. A political murder that carries a very strong political message for Britain and Europe.
PM Cameron and the Remain campaign strategists tried long and hard to move the debate towards the economy. They believed that that is their strong point. And it is. By any stretch of logic the economic arguments for leaving the EU are weak if not ethereal. However, this is not how most people thought about this referendum in private. The rise of UKIP and their marketing campaign is very clear. It is all about immigration. It is a basic fact of political analysis that in order to win elections you have to move the political agenda to your strengths. The Remain campaign tried hard to move it to the economy but it kept slipping.
The past decade, two major events have totally reshaped global and local politics. The first is the credit crisis of 2008. Governments scrambled to save the financial system with hundreds of billions of pounds, dollars, euros (take your currency pick). In the process they funneled taxpayer’s money. Although it is clear that the banking system had to be saved this is not at all how it looked to the person on the street.
The word was out that it was the greedy bankers and the elites that were saved by their pals the politicians. It did not help that in most countries financiers escaped prosecution or the system found that it had no tools with which to prosecute or punish them. Regulation was hastily produced but this is for the future.
Thus the first time bomb was armed. Trust between the people and their political governing class was broken. People entrusted their taxes to politicians only to see them go to save banks is the usual populist charge. The damage was already done to the credibility of the system. Traditional political parties were branded as liars and systemic.
That was fertile ground for populist politics. All that was needed is someone to blame and a strong political message coupled with someone new charismatic leader. In the old days the villain of choice was America. More recently, in the case of Greece it was the Germans in the UK the EU.
Thus we have seen the rise of the so called anti-systemic parties and populist politicians not just in the UK but in many other European countries and the USA. In the past few days we witnessed Tony Blair and John major both campaigning for Remain. Judging from the polls if they had any effect it was probably negative, similarly, for the bosses of big companies and other political grandees. They just don't cut any butter anymore. In many people's minds they are sold out to the system.
The second factor is Islamic terrorism. The West and Western values has been hit repeatedly by Islamic fundamentalists and the governments appear to be unable to contain it despite the rhetoric. People feel threatened and insecure. They have already discredited in their minds the old regime and are easily swayed by naive arguments on immigration. The equation is simple like most populist claims.
The unspoken truth about the UK referendum is that it is more about immigration and security than about economics. Sovereignty arguments are by-product of this. American bases in the UK are sovereign American soil. The British government does not have jurisdiction there, yet no-one mentioned that loss of sovereignty during the campaign.
The tragic death of Jo Cox exposed some ugly truths perhaps even a hypocrisy. Will that change the people’s mind on how they vote on the 23rd? Possibly, but we do not as yet know the direction. The two camps so far have shown remarkable restrain in their statements. The Remainers because they don’t have to do anything as they feel that it works in their favor and the Leavers because they are on the defensive. The killer of Jo Cox may have nothing to do with the Leave campaign and possibly he is disturbed, but the motives that armed his hand seem to identify with the rhetoric of Mr Farage and his political marketing.
People and leaders in the UK and Europe need to wake up to the very real dangers these new populists politics pose. They can no longer ignore them. Policies need to change in order to fight this very real threat. And this is a much bigger threat than any religious fundamentalist group, since it is internal.