The tragic killing of Jo Cox has left figures across the political spectrum badly shaken. They must instinctively look inwards to see what part the current tension revolving around the EU Referendum could have played in her death.
From the outset, the referendum campaign has been full of vitriol and has played on peoples’ worst fears and prejudices. Facts have been skewed on both sides. It is unclear what the future holds whether we vote to leave or remain. And, quite frankly, I do not think the vote is as big a deal as the politicians have made it out to be.
In the last few days, fingers have suddenly been pointed at the Leave campaign - and for good reason. According to them, millions of criminalistic foreign immigrants are set to invade Britain, pave over British culture and enslave our women and children. Of course, if this were true, it would be completely logical to do whatever it takes to vote Leave, including looking at violent solutions. Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, the Daily Mail and the group “Britain First” are all aware of this, and have chosen to play Russian roulette with people’s emotions, with tragically violent consequences.
However, if we look at the Remain campaign, it appears scarcely different. According to Remain campaigners, world wars, famines, epidemics and global financial meltdown await us if we choose to vote Leave. Again, if this was fully true, we might all be justified in grabbing our balaclavas and taking to the streets to harm as many members of the Leave campaign as possible. If the stakes were indeed so high, no action, no matter how violent, could remain off the agenda.
But none of it is true. A Remain vote is a vote for things to stay as they have been for several decades - minus the blip caused by the conflicts in the Middle East and North-West Africa which have resulted in a sudden exodus of refugees. A Leave vote is a vote for things to go back to the way they were after the Second World War. It is injudicious to suggest that there is no future for a country outside of Europe - as Canada, Norway and many other nations prove that to be false. It is bordering on grossly negligent to suggest that voting either way will place people’s families in danger and bring the country towards war or turmoil. By raising the stakes invoked in your rhetoric, you undoubtedly raise the stakes of the actions people are willing to take.
Nobody knows what will happen if we vote Remain or Leave. The referendum is more of an aesthetic choice about where we see our nation fitting in the world than it is the zero-sum game presented in the past few weeks, in which all of our lives hang in the balance. Of course, there will be economic effects of the result. We may all get a bit poorer. That can always be addressed by redistributing some of the wealth in our massively unequal society. Britain may become slightly less popular in the international community if it votes to leave. And if we stays within the European Union, our culture will undoubtedly become more European and less British over time.
But let’s deal with the more ridiculous claims of both campaigns. If we vote to stay in the EU, our country will not be overrun by immigrants and in particular by Islamic culture. If this started to happen, it is likely that the Prime Minister would use his/her emergency powers to act. Our country is still the hardest to get to in the whole of Europe, thanks to the Channel. But it is likely we will lose a little bit of our national identity and sovereignty, just as every country in the union will. The very idea of union is that we pool all of our best traits together.
If we vote to Leave on Thursday, the world will not end. We may lose a bit of prestige on the world stage and our economy may droop (and that does affect people’s lives). But there will be no catastrophic emergency involving a war with Russia, and it was callous of the PM to infer that as a possibility.
Of course, however the nation chooses to vote there are a host of “what-ifs” for the future. It is possible that we may all die in an intercontinental nuclear exchange, or through the effects of climate change and species extinction, or that Britain will plunge into civil war, or that our children will indeed be forced into slavery by some outside power. But none of those events would be caused by our decision on the 23rd June, and they all require a whole host of things to go wrong, over many years, to even become a possibility. There’s only so much you can worry about in a day.
I think we have all gotten so caught up in thinking about the negatives of the referendum because the referendum itself is negative. There is nothing good coming out of it. This isn’t a vote to decide between a brighter future and a darker future. It’s a vote to decide between two unknown futures, both filled with risk and uncertainty. Nobody has all the answers, but both campaigns have been desperate to win. Spokespersons on both sides have heightened tensions and used high-powered rhetoric to bully us into voting one way or the other. But when the politicians roll up their banners and go home at the end of the day, ordinary people sit and worry about what they have said. Fear lingers, full of the explosive language of the day. The gruelling facts and figures of news reports. The frightening prospect of a future filled with dread, death and despair.
Perhaps some of those campaigners on both sides would have done well to round off their rhetoric with one other message. It would go like this: “By the way, don’t worry. We are all trying to do the right thing and we will stand by your decision either way and try to make things work for the best. On the 24th June the sun will come up. Please vote and have your say in our country’s future, but you are not a racist for voting Leave and you are not a traitor to your country for voting Remain.” Instead, by equating a mildly important decision with a life and death decision, campaigners on both sides have something to answer for in the death of Jo Cox.
But I hope that nobody will blame anybody else specifically, and we can instead share collective responsibility. I hope that we can get the vote over and done with, without prejudice, and that we can just agree that we live in a great democracy where we can make decisions without being violent and cruel to one another. I hope, more than anything, that we can learn from our mistakes. Instead, I greatly fear that Monday will mark the end of the ceasefire and a return to aggressive, frightening politics from both sides of the debate.