Outside the Referendum Bubble

“Lost for words”. This was how so many of us reacted to the senseless, brutal murder to MP Jo Cox. After a frenzied week of last ditch campaigning for the upcoming referendum the tragic event in Birstall has catapulted everything into miserable perspective.

Only on Wednesday the Dumbish Armada was descending down the Thames. Even by the low standards of the tat that gets floated down our noxious waterway this was an eyesore. Nigel Farage, looking like a poor man’s Alan Partridge, had his Brexit love cruise gate-crashed by Geldof’s ragtag band of Kensington pirates. Between the mudslinging of nasty epithets and Dobi Gray songs a small dinghy, carrying two adults and two children, charted its way quietly through the chaos. It had a simple message emblazoned on a flag: “In”. At the time –with the foul-mouth Rat on one side and the Fisherman’s Friend on the other- this modest intervention went unnoticed. Now we learn that this was the Cox family.

Jo Cox was by all accounts a remarkable person. Her commitment to some of the biggest challenges the world faces –poverty, conflict and the curse of statelessness- was matched by a positive pragmatism that, as the Chancellor himself has conceded, really changed things. There is no PR or management learning here: you’re either born this way or you’re not.

As the dreadful news sunk in the obligatory comment pieces began to pour out. Many of them were dignified and called for a degree of soul-searching. Alex Massie’s excoriating blog for the Spectator was among the most shared. Massie’s bluntness caught many off-guard and even caused the piece to be taken down before accusations of censorship (ironic, given the circumstances) persuaded the paper’s online editors to reinstate it. Massie asks us to take a good hard look at our body politic, riddled with inflated rhetoric, tribal infection and exaggerated expectation. Leaving aside the specific motives and circumstances of Jo Cox’s murder, is it plausible that in this environment violence has become a logical extreme?

The question of how it looks has been a recurring issue during the referendum campaign. The rest of the world is looking on at us in bafflement. Every country has its parochial frustrations that, in an age of hyper-globalised movement and change, need the occasional venting. For Britain these narrowing forces have become all encompassing. Britain is one of the oldest and most successful cultural exporters the world has known. For us to become so self-absorbed in a debate that no one else in the world understands is simply a bad look.

This week we heard an extraordinary statement from Angela Merkel. The Chancellor effectively chastised British politicians for inflaming division during our campaign. This should be a wake-up call. In our rush to engage ourselves in the issue of Britain we have switched off to the global conversation. Like Jo Cox’s dinghy let us cut through the rabble –not with megaphones and showmanship but clarity and modesty.