It is extremely hard to imagine the courage and pain of Brendan Cox when, presumably on Thursday night, he told his children, who are three and five, that their mother wouldn’t be coming home from work. In his poignant and dignified public statement soon after her passing, he co-mingled his own mourning with a call to action: she would have wanted, he said, “that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her”. For Cox’s family, the loss is unbearable, the joy irretrievable, and the agony eternal. For every one of us, as citizens of Britain’s great democracy, it is now a solemn duty not only to reflect on a life so well lived, but to ensure that her legacy is a profound impact on, and improvement to, the public culture of Britain.
Today, the reputation of British politics is in the gutter – without good reason. It’s been a long time coming. Sleaze scandals through the second half of the twentieth century, from the Profumo Affair to the tale of Jeremy Thorpe, created the impression that many MPs didn’t practice what they preached. The mendacious manipulation of the media by the Blair government nurtured a culture of spin and outright deception in Westminster which spread cynicism and anger among the public. Very damagingly, the expenses scandal exposed by The Daily Telegraph showed that many MPs were downright crooked, exploiting lax rules for their own benefit, at public expense. The financial crisis impoverished hundreds of thousands of poor people who, though they did not cause the crash, were asked to bail out the exceptionally rich and greedy people who did.
In recent times, historic changes in the global economy, from rapid industrialisation in the developing world to increased migratory flows and automation, have created problems which our political class may not be able to solve. And perhaps above all, our print and broadcast media cast all politicians as guilty until proven innocent, while social media has spread sound and fury at a dizzying speed, generally bringing more heat than light into the national conversation.
To all those who say that all this justifies the cynicism that prevails today, or that Britain is corrupt, and that our MPs are on the take, there is now an exquisite if painful two-word retort: Jo Cox. Or if you like, a three-word retort: Jo Cox MP.
After a distinguished career in the charity sector, where she became devoted to the cause of helping refugee children in particular, Cox became an MP for the very constituency in which she was born and grew up. To say, as the Prime Minister did yesterday, that she was a star is no exaggeration: not just one of the most promising talents of Labour’s class of 2015, but also the kind of character, bubbling with energy and conviction, who makes Westminster such an exciting place to be. That, we must never forget, was a place that she aspired to work, and when she became her constituents’ representative last year it was the fulfilment of a long-held ambition. Cox wanted to be an MP not only because she aspired to change lives for the better, and was a devoted public servant, but also because for all its faults, Westminster is still a place where you can get things done, and change lives for the better. Which is what Cox did: as the Chancellor put it at Mansion House on Thursday, she will never know the impact she had on policy toward Syrian refugees, just one of the causes she championed in her far too brief parliamentary career.
It was a good move by the Tory Party to declare they would not put forward a candidate to fight her now briefly vacant seat. In the coming days, it would be fitting if other ways were found to honour Cox’s spirit and work – perhaps an award for recognition of parliamentary work. The best legacy that we could give her would be to adjust the way in which we conduct politics in this country, in particular by recognising that most MPs are exhausted, loyal patriots that could get paid better elsewhere.
Of course we will have to look at the security of MPs doing their work, though the danger of over-reaction here is huge. MPs must be open and available to their public without heavy protection. Yet the main thing we can give our MPs – what was so disgustingly absent from the nihilist who plunged his knife on Thursday – is respect.
Respect for MPs is not the same thing as reverence. Our media should go on scrutinising the use and abuse of power, and public debate should be vigorous, boisterous, and brutally resistant to any and all censorship. But our starting point when giving consideration to the character of our MPs shouldn’t be – and indeed at The Independent never has been and never will be – the prevailing image of a bunch of pigs with their snouts in the trough. Our starting point should be Jo Cox. She was the best of her kind. A dedicated, intelligent, kind and effective public servant, who gave her life to the democracy so many Britons disparage without due knowledge, or – even worse – take for granted. Well, never again. That would be a legacy worthy of this wonderful MP.
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