In his short story The Queer Feet, G.K.Chesterton describes the moment that members of The Twelve True Fishermen, a plutocratic dining club, learn that they cannot have seen their usual 15 waiters at the start of their supper, because one of them has died. “There was a shocking stillness for an instant in that room. It may be (so supernatural is the word death) that each of those idle men looked for a second at his soul, and saw it as a small dried pea. One of them – the duke, I think – even said with the idiotic kindness of wealth: ‘Is there anything we can do?’”
The killing of Jo Cox brought a shocking stillness to the Westminster Village last Thursday, and those who live in it also asked if there is anything they can do. And things have been done. Campaigning was postponed (until today), speeches were torn up, vigils held, charities supported, money raised. This is all to the good. There will be more. When the man charged with murdering her declares that his name is “Death to traitors freedom for Britain”, you can sure that there will be more calls for politics in this country to change. Activity in the final days of the EU referendum will, we read, resume “with a more respectful tone”.
This would be very welcome. The politics of disrespect has already led to our MPs being treated badly when they should be treated better. There is a lot of dirty bathwater in British politics. Anti-semitism has infested Labour to the point where an official party enquiry into it has been necessary. Then there is the anti-Muslim hatred of such groups as Britain First – one which that UKIP immigration poster deliberately risks inflaming.
But there is a danger of tipping the baby out with the filthy bathwater. Consider, for example, the view that Britain’s foreign policy is responsible for Islamist terror. This site has consistently said that it is wrong and has been disproven, doing so as recently as last week in the wake of the Orlando massacre. It can be argued that those who voice it are justifying the murder of innocents. None the less, the distinction between voicing a view, however controversial, and incitement to violence is fundamental – now that we talk of freedom – to a free society, and integral to today’s Britain. Or, to offer another take, Muslims and others should have “safe spaces” in which to express “grievances”.
Similarly, there are also those who believe that immigration into Britain should be lower – a view with which we agree. Polling suggests that they constitute a majority of voters, including those who support the main political parties. It cannot reasonably be claimed that this view should be silenced because the likes of Britain First will seek to exploit it. Indeed, seeking to bar its expression would be a recruiting-sergeant for them and their like.
The last few days of the referendum are upon us. We hope that politicians on both sides will be responsible. But also that they will also be robust – and not be deterred from expressing their view by those who would seek to delegitimise their position on immigration, or on anything else. There is an even bigger point at stake here. Progress in Britain depends on finding the right balance between consensus and conflict. There must be consensus on the fundamentals – such as the treatment of people as equal citizens, rather than on the basis of religion (as Islamists want) or on that of race (the position of the neo-nazis).
But there must also be conflict – or, if that is too harsh a word, the give-and-take of political debate. Jo Cox’s own work helps to prove it so. With Andrew Mitchell and others, she campaigned for the setting-up of “safe havens” in Syria. She wrote articles, made speeches, lobbied Ministers, sat down with the Russians: all the stuff out of which democratic politics is hammered. Debate and disagreement will always be part of the essence of politics. It drives progress. Fighting Hitler, free eduation, votes for women – all were propelled by debate and disagreement.
To say so should be uncontroversial. This weekend, it may be otherwise. But that does not make it wrong. We are four days away from the biggest political decision of our generation. Let the arguments be put – those about control, internationalism, security, living standards, trade: the lot. They include those about immigration, one way or the other. “Is there anything we can do?” the Duke says in Chesterton’s story. Yes, there is, plenty – and above all, this: keep calm and carry on.