Shame on Brexit leaders as silence speaks volumes
Floral tributes and candles are placed by a picture of slain Labour MP Jo Cox at a vigil in Parliament square in London on June 16, 2016. Cox died after a shock daylight street attack, throwing campaigning for the referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union into disarray just a week before the crucial vote. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)
U.K.'s Parliament met in London, England Monday, so MPs of every party could express their horror and disgust at the murder last Thursday of their colleague Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire. And everybody did, including leaders of the Brexit campaign, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. But up to that point, the Brexit leaders had said nothing about it.
Not a word, for more than three days. The political campaign for the referendum next Thursday on Britain's continued membership in the European Union was suspended for two days after Cox's murder, but other politicians didn't go to ground like Johnson, Gove and their friends.
Prime Minister David Cameron, leader of Johnson and Gove's own Conservative Party, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, and a host of fellow members of parliament gathered in Parliament Square on Friday to light candles and lay flowers in tribute to the slain MP, but Brexit leaders were conspicuous by their absence.
Cameron, Corbyn and many senior politicians went on TV to condemn what had happened, but Johnson, Gove and their rather embarrassing ally Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), did not.
There are only two possible explanations for this curious non-event. One is that space aliens abducted Johnson, Gove and Farage Thursday for their usual nefarious purposes, and returned them to Earth Sunday with their memories wiped clean of anal probes. The other is their media advisers told them the only safe course was to say nothing.
The Brexiteers were in a difficult position, because Cox was a high-profile campaigner for Remain, the campaign urging Britons to stay in the EU, and the man who killed her, Tommy Mair, was clearly of the opposite persuasion. As he shot and stabbed her, according to eyewitnesses, he was shouting "Britain first" or "Put Britain first".
His motive became even clearer Saturday, when he was brought before a judge. Asked to state his name, he replied that it is "Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain." The second half of this slogan is, of course, at the heart of the "Leave" campaign's argument for Brexit.
Obviously Johnson, Gove and Farage knew nothing of Mair's intentions, nor approved of them in any way. But people could reasonably argue the increasingly nasty tone of the "Leave" campaign may have served as a trigger for Mair's crime.
In the early stages of the campaign the debate was mostly about economic advantages of leaving or staying in the EU, but the "Leave" side clearly lost that argument, and shifted the debate instead onto the hot-button topic of immigration.
This involved a good deal of lying, like the ridiculous Leave claim that Turkey was shortly going to become an EU member, giving 70 million Turks the right to move to Britain.
The dog-whistle racism of Leave's anti-immigration campaign was at its worst in a poster Farage unveiled just two hours before Cox was murdered, showing an endless column of young men of Middle Eastern appearance marching into Europe and captioned "Breaking Point". In other words, quit the EU or Britain too will be drowned in a sea of Muslim fake refugees.
The poster was condemned even by Farage's allies (Gove said he "shuddered" when he saw it) -- but Gove did NOT go on to say Middle Eastern refugees let in by other EU countries do not gain the right to enter Britain. To admit that would undermine the whole anti-immigrant strategy of the Leave campaign.
That's something Gove didn't want to be questioned on. All the more did he not want to be questioned on possible causal links between the Leave campaign's general strategy of claiming the British people are enslaved by faceless "EU bureaucrats in Brussels" and Mair's cry of "Freedom for Britain."
So Brexit leaders took their media managers' advice and hid themselves away after the assassination of Cox. When Mair gave his name as "Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain" in court Saturday, they hid for another day, fearing guilt by association.
Now they are back out in the open, hoping nobody noticed their absence. But it is also possible that quite a few ordinary voters did notice it, and drew their own conclusions from it. We'll find out on Friday.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.