I cannot remember a darker week for British public life than this last one. This blog is not directly about Jo Cox, the brilliant MP and passionate campaigner, who was murdered in the course of her duties by a man who gave his name in court as ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’. But of course it has shaken me deeply. A politician was targeted and killed in the course of her duties: this is shaking Britain. I never met Jo Cox, but I have worked for some of the same charities, and read with admiration her writing and speeches: she was someone I saw as a leader on issues I care about. My first thought when I woke on Friday morning was of her family, and what waking up that morning would mean to them.
A piece I admired a lot was one that Jo Cox wrote on Syria together with Conservative Andrew Mitchell. As I have got older, I am less attached to party loyalties. What I have seen is that where something really matters, the best chance of a lasting result is in cross-party political consensus. Here, in Jo Cox and Andrew Mitchell, were politicians showing that they cared more about what happened in Syria than they cared about scoring points off each other. Jo Cox said of diversity: ‘What surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us’.
I am no leader in politics. I tried to get involved in the Remain campaign but was defeated by the combination of work, study and my own health. My body shut down every time I tried to push myself to do more. But the death of Jo Cox has made me feel that there is more I should do, soon. I have not spoken up when friends on social media painted politicians as all corrupt, all in the pockets of rich men and big business. I have met enough politicians through my work, seeking input from charities to help them propose workable policies, to know that that is not true of many on both sides. I have avoided minor conflicts in my own small world and not held true to my own principles, I have not spoken up about my belief in democratic dialogue, citizenship education, in the value of representative democracy.
Part of what holds me back is a sense of vulnerability. I have a young child and have been slightly unwell, I feel alarmed out campaigning when a big man leans over me and shouts ‘I’m voting OUT, come to your senses!’ I’m a dual national, and a few months ago, one of my oldest friends voiced her distrust of such people, saying that dual nationals were constantly looking at both sides to see where to get the best deal. I’m easily intimidated and not a good spokesperson. But I have to say this anyway.
It may be that next Friday, June 24th, it will fall to those of us on the Remain side to accept a result we have been dreading, to swallow our bitterness, and to search internally for the strength to get on with helping to build the future. This does not mean that we should accept that all the things we fear must come to pass. I will definitely need the NHS in the next 6 months and my daughter will start school in a year. As someone who depends on public services working, the economic shock will impact on me and my family. So it will fall to people like me on both sides, to try to make the system work under the new, unwelcome, dispensation. As my husband said last night: ‘The job is, always, to try to make things better.’ We will continue to believe in democracy but we will also be clear that we think the Leave campaign, if it wins, will have won largely on the back of misleading statements about money and on a terrible platform of fear about immmigration. A Comres poll showed that Leavers are more likely to believe that man-made climate change is a made up scare story, and to distrust scientists. We will need to argue the case for science and for a better direction of travel for the climate, among many other tasks. It will be unwelcome work but we don’t have a choice.
On the other hand, if our side wins, what then? We will be hugely relieved, we should congratulate those who worked hardest for the result, but we should not over-celebrate. We should not use that phrase ‘this is a victory for democracy’ when, vilely, we mean only that ‘our side won.’ (Equally we should not call a Leave vote ‘a sad day for democracy.’ Democracy’s sadness or happiness is not tied to a particular result). It should fall to us who voted Remain, if we win the vote, to hear the many voices on Leave which were not racist, but which worried about housing, jobs, services, about the health of our democracy. Many Leavers have the same worries that I do. I cannot share their conclusion but I can share their concerns.
For all our sakes, let’s not exhaust ourselves with bitterness before the 24th. Let those of us who believe in democratic process, dialogue, civility, citizenship education, on all sides, find the strength to help each other continue to believe in those things, even when, especially when, we have had our hearts broken.