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No, the mood of British politics did not lead to the death of a valued MP

You may not like the shouting and barracking of Prime Minister's Questions, but that is how top-level politics in this country is done

Mary Dejevsky
Saturday 18 June 2016 12:20 BST
Tributes being paid for Jo Cox MP
Tributes being paid for Jo Cox MP (Reuters)

The death of Jo Cox – the first female MP to be killed in the line of duty – is a tragic loss on so many levels: for her family, for her constituents, for the institution of Parliament and for the causes she so passionately represented. Prosaic and short-termist as this may sound, however, it risks becoming a loss also for the EU referendum and, by extension, for UK democracy.

How so? On the apparent evidence of a witness who reported that the alleged attacker had shouted “Britain first”, politicians and commentators rushed to blame what they saw as the crass negativity of the referendum campaign, especially as waged by the Brexiteers. Among the most eloquent critics was Alex Massie, a Remainer writing for the pro-Leave Spectator magazine.

He noted that the anti-EU MEP, Nigel Farage, had introduced a poster earlier that day showing a long line of migrants, with captions saying: “The EU has failed us” and “Breaking point”. “When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again,” wrote Massie, “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. You didn’t make them do it, no, but you didn’t do much to stop it either.”

All you need to know about the EU referendum

That is a forceful view, and one that rapidly gained a following, especially among Remainers. If only the referendum campaign had been less ruthless, they lamented; if only opponents had resisted verbal street-fighting; if only everyone had shown respect...the nasty, brutish, adversarial culture of today’s politics might not have been directly to blame for Jo Cox’s death, they conceded, but surely it played a role – and now we should all shape up and behave like the polite and civilised Britons we really are.

As a steadfast Remainer, and sometime participant in referendum debates, I could not disagree more.

The referendum campaign has been one of the longest electoral engagements of recent times. It seemed to simmer away without troubling anyone much until suddenly, in its latter stages, it took off.

Then, yes, there were blatant distortions on either side; yes, the language became heated; yes, the campaign left tolerance behind. But genuine political debate is not afternoon tea. If you can’t have a no-holds barred argument about the future of the country – which is what the EU referendum is about – then we might as well wave any idea of political participation goodbye.

You may not like the shouting and barracking that distinguishes Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) from the more deliberative proceedings of the German or Scottish parliaments, but this – though perhaps not for ever – is how top-level politics in this country is done. And for all the noise at PMQs, one of the real defects of UK politics is the way an elite consensus tends to freeze out argument on crucial issues. Where was the opposition to the Iraq war, to easy credit or bloated banks? Where was the challenge to official estimates for EU free movement or to the assumptions about wider immigration? Where, until the Scottish referendum, was any dispute about the constitutional arrangements for this country in changing times?

A merit of the EU referendum campaign was that, almost by accident, these fundamental questions began to be aired - and aired in an informed and passionate way. The danger now is twofold. First, that Jo Cox’s murder appears to skew the referendum vote towards Remain, allowing Leave to complain they were not beaten fairly. Second, that the fierce national discussion on real issues we were just starting to have is banished for being too inflammatory. In both eventualities, our democracy would be the loser.

The EU referendum debate has so far been characterised by bias, distortion and exaggeration. So until 23 June we we’re running a series of question and answer features that explain the most important issues in a detailed, dispassionate way to help inform your decision.

What is Brexit and why are we having an EU referendum?

Does the UK need to take more control of its sovereignty?

Could the UK media swing the EU referendum one way or another?

Will the UK benefit from being released from EU laws?

Will we gain or lose rights by leaving the European Union?

Will Brexit mean that Europeans have to leave the UK?

Will leaving the EU lead to the break-up of the UK?

What will happen to immigration if there's Brexit?

Will Brexit make the UK more or less safe?

Will the UK benefit from being released from EU laws?

Will leaving the EU save taxpayers money and mean more money for the NHS?

What will Brexit mean for British tourists booking holidays in the EU?

Will Brexit help or damage the environment?

Will Brexit mean that Europeans have to leave the UK?

What will Brexit mean for British expats in Europe?

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