Brexit, right-wing racism and the assassination of Jo Cox

Brexit, right-wing racism and the assassination of Jo Cox
The murder of pro-internationalist MP Jo Cox highlights the underlying xenophobic sentiment of the 'Brexit' campaign, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
23 Jun, 2016
UKIP leader Nigel Farage [Getty]
When I first heard the news that Labour MP Jo Cox had been assassinated, my heart sank. Combined with the tragedy of any innocent life being taken, the sinking feeling occurred not because I knew Jo in any personal capacity, but rather because for the year that she has been in parliament, I, like most supporters of the Syrian revolution, have avidly followed her interventions on that country and the plight of its people. 

In this respect, given her views on Assad's war as "the greatest test of our generation", combined with her holding the government to account for its callously inadequate response to the refugee crisis, I must confess that my initial thought was that those Syrians struggling for life and freedom had lost one of their most fearless allies. It had to be her, I thought to myself, given just how unique a voice Jo was in this capacity.

The main question on people's lips concerned why this young, bright and much-loved MP had been shot three times, stabbed and kicked to death in her own constituency?  It's now beyond clear that Jo wasn't killed randomly. She wasn't in the wrong place at the wrong time.  She was assassinated, as her husband Brendan said in an interview with the BBC, because of what she believed in. Her assailant Tommy Mair wasn't having a bad day – he wasn't mindlessly lashing out.

The subject of immigration in the UK – the entire rhetoric and political culture surrounding it – has always fluctuated between, on the one hand, immigration seen as a purely economic benefit and, on the other hand, different shades of the racist politics of Enoch Powell, the National Front and the British National Party. 

Mainstream politicians have so destructively opted for the tactic of absorbing the racist mythology of right-wing populism, as opposed to challenging it.

This is true in normal circumstances, such as with the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown stealing the BNP's slogan of "British jobs for British workers", or the current government's utilisation of infamous 'racist vans' patrolling Britain's streets emblazoned with signs that read "Go Home". 

The entire campaign from the Leave side of the debate was born of and has appealed to the classic racist idea that the real cause of all the UK's manifold troubles – whether housing or the strained NHS – is 'mass immigration'

Within the context of the campaign to decide whether or not Britain remains part of the European Union (EU), what was already a radicalised issue has just been turned up to a whole new level of racist hysteria. 

The entire basis of a 'Brexit' (the portmanteau to describe Britain's exit from the EU) has always been inexorably intertwined with the nativist anti-immigration politics of the hard-right. This is true whether it's within the Eurosceptic wing of the Tories or the much more openly extreme United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

The entire campaign from the Leave side of the debate was born of and has appealed to the classic racist idea that the real cause of all the UK's manifold troubles – whether housing or the strained NHS – is 'mass immigration' caused by the right to freedom of movement within EU member states. 

The main slogan of the Leave campaigns, both the allegedly 'moderate' official one and the UKIP-led one, has been 'Take back control' – one might ask from whom?  The answer isn’t just the evil-minded foreigners in Brussels that are building, according to Conservative MP Boris Johnson, the figurehead of the Leave campaign, a 'United States of Europe', thus mendaciously eroding not just the sovereignty but also the very existence of Britain. It's also the pro-EU liberal establishment who are allegedly colluding with Brussels against the British people.

This argument has underpinned right-wing nationalist politics for decades in various different contexts. These are all arguments that Tommy Mair had heard before. In fact, these are arguments that Tommy Mair had used before, but not about the EU. 

In 1999, Mair wrote to a pro-apartheid magazine about how he was "glad that you [the magazine] had strongly condemned the collaborators within the White South African population" and that in his opinion the main enemy of white supremacy in South Africa was not the ANC, but rather "white liberals and traitors". 

Jox Cox memorial London
Londoners gather to pay their respects to Jox Cox on the day of her 42nd Birthday, June 22 2016 [Getty]

When Mair was asked to give his name in court, he replied "death to traitors, freedom for Britain". We know who in Mair's mind the "traitors" are – people like Jo Cox, who aside from being a passionate supporter of the EU, was an even more passionate defender of immigration and a committed anti-racist.

She used her maiden speech in parliament to highlight the benefits of immigration and celebrate the diversity of her constituency, praising her Muslim constituents – she was perhaps the foremost voice in the UK calling for the government to allow as many Syrian refugees as possible into the country. 

When an act of so-called Islamic terrorism occurs, the media and politicians are always looking for a point of radicalisation to blame for it – a hate preacher to be hounded out. With Tommy Mair, initially the reports focused on him having mental health issues – even as the Southern Poverty Law Centre and others were exposing his ties to the far-right, much of the British media were still keen to focus on him in what you might call a non-political light. 

But there's now very little doubt that Mair knew exactly who he was assassinating and why he was doing it – Tommy was just taking matters into is own hands and taking back control. After all, this is a campaign in which UKIP leader Nigel Farage has warned that there will be violence if people feel that immigration is "not controlled". 

This is a campaign where, in a deliberate attempt to stoke the already combustive Islamophobia in the UK, the Leave campaign have used arguments insinuating so falsely that Turkey is about to join the EU, thus paving the way for 70 million unwashed Islamic Turks to turn up in the UK overnight.

Read also: Jo Cox killing: The media's selective labelling of 'terror' 

It was with twisted irony that on the day of Jo Cox's death, UKIP unveiled a billboard of a massive snaking line of Syrian refugees with the caption "Breaking Point: The EU has failed us" emblazoned above. 

There's absolutely no connection between the EU and Syrian refugees coming to the UK, but it was never meant to be about facts, but rather a visceral attempt to foment racist hysteria. 

The taboo in the UK today isn't that you can't talk about immigration, but rather that due to our cultural obsession with immigration it's increasingly dangerous to be an openly pro-immigration public figure, never mind an immigrant or a person of colour.

In this sense, Jo's assassination has revealed what is truly at stake in this referendum. At the beginning, I was a passive Remain supporter, but Jo's assassination reinforced the fact that this is really about, no matter if it's a suited politician or a fascist assassin, the politics of racism pitted against anti-racism.

While I'm by no means an uncritical supporter of the EU, come this Thursday, I'll be with Jo. As the son of an immigrant, I'm with the immigrants, the victims of racism and all those who for so long we've been told to fear. I'll now be proudly voting to remain in the EU – a vote against the largest mobilisation of the right and its racist logic in my lifetime.