Anders Breivik has visited his lunacy and bitterness on Britain. Whether or not the self-appointed assassin, Thomas Mair, turns out to have been directly influenced by Breivik, the paradigm is nevertheless exact. All of the essential elements are there. And as in Norway, the personal injury extends to all those who cling instinctively or intellectually to the principle and practice of democratic governance, as much as to those who implacably insist that the principle must be guarded and the practice reformed.
The assassination could not have been forestalled, because no plausible sequence of antecedent events could have avoided it. Calls to “tone down the Referendum debate”, notably from the German Chancellor, can therefore be valued at pure political savoir faire. One cannot in any event, ‘tone down’ democratic public discourse, no matter the depth of absurdity and bad faith to which it descends, because to do so leads immediately to a contradiction: an attack on free speech is an attack on democracy itself — precisely what is wanted by a Chancellor who has become accustomed to ruling by reputation and decree.
Whether or not this dreadful and sinister act will be decisive in urging Remain over the line will not be known until the votes are counted. What was not in doubt from the outset was that very soon, because there were so few days left before the Referendum, this watershed event would be clothed in partisan significance for the benefit of the electorate. In a piece for The Guardian, Gordon Brown has already arranged the dominoes thus:
❝ […] The referendum was always about more than Europe; it was always about what kind of Britain we are and what we aspire to be. But some have attempted to hijack a decision on the future of Britain in Europe and turn it into a vote on immigration, and then on immigrants and those who support immigrants. Unless we strive for a culture of respect to replace a culture that does too little to challenge prejudice, we will be learning nothing from what happened to Jo [Cox]. We have to be honest that calling for tolerance, while welcome, is not enough: we cannot just revert back to a status quo still filled with prejudice and discrimination without recognising the hurt that has been done and the need to address these injustices head on. […] ❞
This is clear enough, and serviceable: a quotation lifted from its context only to the extent that all utterances are made and taken out of context. To understand the complete context, one must have lived and paid attention for a very long time. Apparently, it is the modern politician’s job to narrow the context and demonize the opposition; to incriminate by sleight of hand. The mendacity of virtue burns brightly in the former prime minister’s remarks. Now see what you’ve done, he seems to be saying, this is what opposition to immigration leads to. All, including democratically expressed opposition, leads inevitably down the same path. More crucially, suggests Brown, opposition to immigration is indistinguishable from hatred of the immigrants themselves as human individuals, and even more remotely, of their supporters as well. The final step is to insinuate, as Brown seems to do, that there can be no conceivable political or moral case against mass immigration. To smear an opposition case as morally depraved under any circumstances might be the casual recourse of modern politics, but not of democratic politics.
In the view of The Europeans, the European Union is incorrigible. Exposed as a theatre for careerist posturing; fractured by challenge; stupid and cruel in its treatment of Greece; sloppy, disorganized and undefended; it is yet all the while utterly convinced of the force of its moral will. Above all, it is structurally anti-democratic. But no matter: the partisan intervention of Gordon Brown and others has attempted to brand the Leave campaign with the badge of immorality; with the implied invitation, therefore, to dismiss the rational elements of its case out of hand. What Brown could have said, had not his political reflexes jerked into action, is that the personal fate of Jo Cox was an unbearable tragedy for her family and friends and supporters; that the assassination was an excruciating event for the British people; that she was the victim of a half-lucid, half-crazed subscriber to one of the many utopias on offer; but that, in the end, the desperate, embittered, single-issue fringe of an otherwise complex democratic movement neither defines nor indicts the whole, even if one viscerally disagrees with its programme. Brown’s message, on the contrary, is that it does. This readiness to traduce a whole community of confession using whichever travesty is to hand, would not be tolerated by Brown in the related context of Islamic extremism. A case of opposites leading in the same direction. As required.
With or without the undertow of immigration politics, both the Leave and the Remain campaigns must be absolutely free to put their respective cases democratically. That does not mean politely; it does not even mean honestly. Dishonest speech is free speech — and so is calling it out.