Former London Mayor Boris Johnson speaks as Michael Gove listens at a Vote Leave rally in London, Britain June 19, 2016.  Dominic Lipinski/Press Association via REUTERS
© Reuters

I did not know Jo Cox, for whom tributes and prayers will be offered in Westminster on Monday. She was clearly a fine and brave Member of Parliament, cut down at the very start of what would have been a distinguished career. She was a woman of whom our country can be very proud. And — whisper it not in the editorial offices of some of our newspapers — there are many more MPs like her.

Cox was a public servant with a strong sense of moral obligation to the disadvantaged of the world. You know, the sort of people who feature in posters unveiled by Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence party. “Blessed are the poor” and all that wishy-washy stuff that we can apparently no longer afford.

She knew that this country is strong partly because of its extraordinary cultural, religious and racial diversity; like my own great grandparents and three mixed-race grandchildren. Cox thought that to be a “do-gooder” was not a term of abuse. What, after all, would a community of “do-badders” be like?

She clearly knew that life is a mountain range of predicaments and that we stand the best chance of climbing over them if we work together trying to build a consensus, not to tear one another to shreds.

Referendums, alas, are not about the search for an accommodation. That is why I have always hated them, and opposed their introduction. In a parliamentary democracy even in an election campaign you are pushed back all the time to the middle ground. That is of course where virtually every government pitches its tent; in practice that was true about Margaret Thatcher’s administrations most of the time.

This referendum campaign on the EU, however, has delivered nasty divisiveness in industrial quantities. As always happens when nationalist sentiment is whipped up, sooner or later the whole debate turns on conspiracy and race. Identity politics slithers on to the agenda.

No one will surely argue that members of the two Brexit campaigns, Vote Leave and Grassroots Out, are responsible for Cox’s death. That would be a reckless untruth. But what sort of context has been created by some of what has passed for debate in these past weeks about immigration, Turkey and the Syrian refugee crisis?

Use the internet and look at the front pages of some of our mendacious tabloids, above all the Express. It is implied that the British people may have to take things into their own hands.

The worst of the filth on immigration has been whipped up by Mr Farage. Not surprising, perhaps. But as the Leavers’ case for leaving the EU on economic grounds was lost — even after claiming that a conspiracy of experts should not be believed — immigration and associated issues have come to take centre stage in an unpleasantly deceitful and hypocritical way.

The ruefully sanctimonious Vote Leave campaigners Michael Gove and Boris Johnson may want to reflect on some of the company they keep and the arguments they use, as should some of their Conservative colleagues in the Ukip-lite faction of the Brexit campaign.

Britain is a wonderful country. An extraordinary mixture of people and cultures has created a great pedigree. We are tolerant and decent with a worldwide reputation of understanding the values of a pluralist democracy.

We are, for heaven’s sake, respected around the world. Is that a bad thing? Perhaps we should discount this because it does not have a price tag.

But when we do turn to money, this decent, civilised country is also doing remarkably well. When I first got into politics in the 1970s, we were the sick man of Europe, and we lagged behind Germany, France, Italy and others. Now we have one of the continent’s strongest economies and probably will become the biggest and strongest of all within the next 15 years or so. We have great universities and cultural institutions. We are a global magnet for the talented and the hardworking.

We have, moreover, an enviably strong democracy capable of giving a lead to others. We should have the confidence to lead in Europe, open to the world that Cox and so many others (particularly among the young) have sought to embrace. This is what our universities have done in recent years and it is a major reason for their success.

Yet the veil between our mature democracy and crude populism has been rent. I hope we can stitch the pieces together again. If we do, the killing of a brave young mother will be the principal reason.

If not, God help us.

The writer is chancellor of the University of Oxford, a former chairman of the Conservative party and was the last governor of Hong Kong

Get alerts on when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section