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I hadn’t heard of her before yesterday. What a terrible tragedy. And crime. She sounded like a good person, a vocal humanitarian in the British parliament and strong advocate for Syrian refugees, and particularly for Syrian children. Syrians—and particularly those in Britain—are devastated by her shocking murder. A day in infamy, as Alex Massie, Scotland editor of The Spectator, put it in a powerful commentary.
The contrast between Jo Cox and that wretched specimen of a human being, Nigel Farage, could not be greater.
The wretched Brexit referendum is just so, well, wretched that I have barely been able to read about the campaign, except to take note of the latest polls. The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee penned a column after the Cox murder, “The mood is ugly, and an MP is dead,” in which she said that “It’s wrong to view the killing of Jo Cox in isolation. Hate has been whipped up against the political class.” Her conclusion
Something close to a chilling culture war is breaking out in Britain, a divide deeper than I have ever known, as I listen to the anger aroused by this referendum campaign. The air is corrosive, it has been rendered so. One can register shock at what has happened, but not complete surprise.
I did read one very good piece the day before yesterday, “A short handbook of Brexit fallacies,” by Albert Weale, University College London Emeritus Professor of Political Theory and Public Policy.
In case one missed it, Neal Ascherson has a good op-ed in the NYT, “From Great Britain to Little England.”
And the FT’s Philip Stephens has an equally good commentary, “The dubious lure of taking on an elite,” in which he reminds the reader that “The dirty little secret of EU membership is that it has been an economic success story.” Money quote
There is nothing complicated or abstract about the case for European engagement: it rests on three pillars: national prosperity, security and attachment to values that many Brits would claim as their own — liberty, democracy and the rule of law. This in an age when the west’s interests and values are under rising challenge from autocrats across the globe.
The dirty little secret of EU membership is that it has been an economic success story. Britain joined in 1973 as the sick man of Europe. In the subsequent 43 years it has flourished. National output has risen faster than that of Germany, France and Italy. Per capita gross domestic product has increased by an average of 1.8 per cent annually, against 1.7 per cent in Germany, 1.4 per cent in France and 1.3 per cent in Italy.
One hopes that soft “Out” and undecided voters will honor Jo Cox’s memory by voting “In” next Thursday.
UPDATE: Simon Schama has a must-read column in the FT, “Let us spurn Brexit and remain a beacon of tolerance.” It concludes
If, finally, I invoke the memory of Jo Cox, it is not to exploit her death but to honour her morally magnificent and cruelly ended life. She was as homegrown Yorkshire as you could get. But she understood with instinctive decency that to be British was also to be a citizen of the wider world including Europe; that the two identities were mutually sustaining not mutually exclusive; that no man is an island.
She was the impassioned champion of the Syrian people, tormented and uprooted by their unrelenting war. Her maiden speech said it all: “Our communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration . . . what surprises me time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more things in common with each other than things which divides us.”
She was, she said, a celebrant of diversity. And that, too, is what makes our country a United Kingdom.
2nd UPDATE: Writer AA Gil has a terrific tribune in the June 12th Sunday Times arguing for “In” and rubbishing the Brexit arguments. The lede: “We all know what ‘getting our country back’ means. It’s snorting a line of that most pernicious and debilitating Little English drug, nostalgia.”
It was the woman on Question Time that really did it for me. She was so familiar. There is someone like her in every queue, every coffee shop, outside every school in every parish council in the country. Middle-aged, middle-class, middle-brow, over-made-up, with her National Health face and weatherproof English expression of hurt righteousness, she’s Britannia’s mother-in-law. The camera closed in on her and she shouted: “All I want is my country back. Give me my country back.
It was a heartfelt cry of real distress and the rest of the audience erupted in sympathetic applause, but I thought: “Back from what? Back from where?
Wanting the country back is the constant mantra of all the outies. Farage slurs it, Gove insinuates it. Of course I know what they mean. We all know what they mean. They mean back from Johnny Foreigner, back from the brink, back from the future, back-to-back, back to bosky hedges and dry stone walls and country lanes and church bells and warm beer and skittles and football rattles and cheery banter and clogs on cobbles. Back to vicars-and-tarts parties and Carry On fart jokes, back to Elgar and fudge and proper weather and herbaceous borders and cars called Morris. Back to victoria sponge and 22 yards to a wicket and 15 hands to a horse and 3ft to a yard and four fingers in a Kit Kat, back to gooseberries not avocados, back to deference and respect, to make do and mend and smiling bravely and biting your lip and suffering in silence and patronising foreigners with pity.
We all know what “getting our country back” means. It’s snorting a line of the most pernicious and debilitating Little English drug, nostalgia. The warm, crumbly, honey-coloured, collective “yesterday” with its fond belief that everything was better back then, that Britain (England, really) is a worse place now than it was at some foggy point in the past where we achieved peak Blighty. It’s the knowledge that the best of us have been and gone, that nothing we can build will be as lovely as a National Trust Georgian country house, no art will be as good as a Turner, no poem as wonderful as If, no writer a touch on Shakespeare or Dickens, nothing will grow as lovely as a cottage garden, no hero greater than Nelson, no politician better than Churchill, no view more throat-catching than the White Cliffs and that we will never manufacture anything as great as a Rolls-Royce or Flying Scotsman again.
The dream of Brexit isn’t that we might be able to make a brighter, new, energetic tomorrow, it’s a desire to shuffle back to a regret-curdled inward-looking yesterday. In the Brexit fantasy, the best we can hope for is to kick out all the work-all-hours foreigners and become caretakers to our own past in this self-congratulatory island of moaning and pomposity.
In this vein, Emile Simpson—a former British Army officer and current fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs—has an excellent, must-read piece in Foreign Policy, “Welcome to the fantasy island of Little England,” that utterly demolishes the arguments for Brexit. Reduces them to smithereens.
Prediction: If the “Out” wins—which I predict it will not—the UK government’s negotiations with the EU will be so protracted and arduous—with Brussels taking an uncompromising hard line with the Brits—that there will be a second referendum down the road, in which “In” will win.
3rd UPDATE: William Inboden—Executive Director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas-Austin and who held national security and foreign policy posts in the Bush 43 administration—has a tribute in Foreign Policy to Jo Cox, who hosted him and a group of his students at a dinner in London three weeks ago. She impressed them all.
4th UPDATE: Life peer Doreen Lawrence has a fine commentary, dated June 12th, in the New Statesman, “Europe is not an elite conspiracy against the public.” Money quote:
The Leave campaign has tried to pitch this debate as being about the people against the establishment. Nothing could be further from the truth. Europe is not an elite conspiracy against the public: at its best, it is the opposite. It is about the solidarity of the peoples of Europe with each other and our determination to create a better, freer and fairer world. It establishes a framework where citizens are protected from the state by common rules and standards.
Also see New Statesman contributing editor Laurie Penny’s commentary, “Britain’s breaking point: We owe it to Jo Cox not to write off her death as an act of affectless terrorism or meaningless madness.”
5th UPDATE: Simon Tilford—deputy director of the excellent think tank Centre for European Reform—had an excellent op-ed, dated June 10th, in The Telegraph, “If we leave the EU, other countries will think we’re a bunch of spoilt children. They’ll be right.”
6th UPDATE: In case one missed it, Andrew Moravcsik of Princeton University—who is the leading specialist of the EU in American political science—had a must-read op-ed, dated April 8th, in the FT, “The great Brexit kabuki — a masterclass in political theatre” (in PDF).
7th UPDATE: NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof has a nice tribute, “R.I.P., Jo Cox. May Britain remember your wisdom,” in which he discusses her activism on many fronts. In it, he links to a tribune, dated June 10th, that Cox published in The Yorkshire Post, “Brexit is no answer to real concerns on immigration.”
8th UPDATE: Glen Newey, who teaches practical philosophy at the University of Leiden, had a spot on piece, dated May 8th, in Foreign Policy on that insufferable clown Boris Johnson, “The Boaty McBoatface of British politics.” The lede: “The Brexit fight is proving too big a stage for Boris Johnson’s brand of political performance art.”
Newey also skewers the Tory ‘Remain’ camp, notably David Cameron, in an LRB blog post, dated June 22nd, “Bad Argument Olympiad.”
9th UPDATE: FWIW, my Brexit referendum prediction is here.
10th UPDATE: My cousin in London, Umesh, has a smart commentary—which is typical for him, as he’s exceptionally smart—on social media this morning (here), after casting his vote. Money quote:
Whatever the polls say, I cannot believe the British public would be so idiotic as to vote ‘leave’ and throw us into years of complete chaos: protracted negotiations, economic and political uncertainty and inevitable economic decline. Not really a decision which should have been given to the public in the first place.
He predicts the ‘In’ will win by an even greater than I did above. I hope he’s right.