Last week we saw a new low in British society and politics: the horrific killing of an MP apparently targeted by an extremist because of her political beliefs, brutally attacked while going about her constituency duties. As well as being a devastating tragedy for her family, Jo’s death has been a huge shock to all of us who cherish our democracy. And a wake-up call. The brutal attack on Jo felt like – and is – an attack on us all. It’s an attack on the core values of free speech, tolerance and respect which underpin our democratic freedoms.
Nothing can ever bring Jo back. Brendan Cox has lost his adored wife and their beloved children will grow up without their mother. But we must try, as we attempt to make sense of Jo’s death, to make sure that she didn’t die in vain. In the same way that shocking events like 9/11, 7/7 and the Paris attacks challenge us to see through the initial rage and understand the underlying causes of the cultural crisis they are a sign of, so this horror must make us ask: what has gone wrong, and how can we put it right?
For many I suspect the killing of Jo Cox has come to symbolise the ugliest elements of the politics of fear, intolerance and extremism seemingly sweeping the world whether in the form of Isis, the rise of the had-right in Europe and America, and here in the UK where the attacks of 7/7, the brutal beheading of Lee Rigby and the terrible events of last week seem part of an escalating cycle of cultural, religious and political intolerance, extremism and violence.
It is the job of good politicians to try and understand, speak to and tackle the underlying concerns behind resentments before they build up. The cruelest irony of all is that Jo Cox embodied that commitment as a new MP for her home town of Batley where she was actively trying to address concerns over homelessness, asylum, immigration and the politics of hate. She was the brutal victim of the very intolerance she was trying to defuse.
She was also the victim of a long incubated and dangerous rise of contempt for elected office – ‘anti-politics’ – which has been building in this country. As any MP will attest, the truth is that the hostility to all those in elected office has become much worse in recent years. I vividly remember my first week as an MP in 2010 encountering raw hatred on the doorsteps after the expenses scandal.
For too long, there has been a deep disconnect between the public and the politicians they elect to represent them, a broken covenant at the heart of our democracy. Decades of spin and negativity by a seemingly professional political class, epitomised by the EU referendum over the last few weeks which has seemed too often like a shouting match between politicians rather than a national debate, have caused a growing disenchantment and alienation in our society. In that divide has grown a hatred which has long threatened to undermine the very foundation of our democratic system.
That’s why a New Generation of us, including Jo, came into politics in 2010 and 2015 determined to work hard to rebuild trust from the grass roots. Ask any commentator and they’ll tell you: the 2010 and 2015 intakes, on all sides of the House, most of us fresh from normal everyday careers, have come in as representatives of the Real World, driven not by the traditional combination of slavish party loyalty and careerism but a genuine commitment to try and re-earn trust in politics after the damage of the years of sleaze, spin, dodgy dossiers and expenses.
For many of us like Jo, this has been a long journey of dedication to cause. For me this has been a twenty-year journey of campaigning: from launching a Localist movement in 1994, to “Mind the Gap” in 2003 and the “Positive Politics” campaign in 2005, I came to politics driven first and foremost by a belief that a new generation of us must try and do politics better. That is why I gave up my career as an entrepreneur to stand for Parliament, determined to try and make a difference.
I believe the horrific killing of Jo Cox is a moment for this New Generation of us to speak more openly about what has gone wrong and how we must, collectively, tackle it. Fundamentally, I believe we must see this as a moment in our history to re-covenant our respect as a society for politics done well. Democracy can ultimately only be as good as the society it represents. We must all learn once again to value free speech and civilised debate, led by open, accessible and accountable Parliamentarians. We must pledge ourselves to continuing the fight for freedom, for tolerance and for understanding between individuals, nations and peoples. We must ensure that love, hope and understanding will always triumph over hate, fear and despair.
We must reject the politics of alarmist language, personal attacks and fear. The shrill intolerant tone of the EU referendum has come to embody so much of what has gone wrong with modern politics. This, therefore, must be the moment when a New Generation of us stand up for a better way of doing politics: more local, more personal, more visible and more positive. This needs to be a new dawn of “Positive Politics”: the campaign I started in 2005, calling for the Conservative Party to adopt it during the general election. It was a call I repeated in my maiden speeches in 2010 and 2015, in championing genuine One Nation policies and in the 2020 Conservatives Group I founded to harness the energy of the New Generation.
It means politicians doing a number of things differently: putting people and place before party, putting our constituency first, always, and embracing the role of local constituency champion and activist, being more honest about our personal motivations and failings, more accessible and accountable to the people who we serve, and trying to set the highest standards of conduct.
Jo Cox was the flag carrier of a new generation of MPs across all sides of the House who are doing this in our daily work. It isn’t easy. Until now we have been swimming against a tide of long incubated anger with all politics. But perhaps the appalling and horrific events of last week will be the turning point. (The spontaneous outburst of #ThankYourMP messages on Twitter has been a wonderful sign of hope.)
This Thursday we will all go and cast a historic vote at the ballot box. But I believe the significance of the EU referendum may come to represent something bigger than the deciding vote on the European Union. It may be the moment the electorate signalled that they wanted fewer rabble rousers and more Jo Cox’s.
The tragic events of last week have shaken the world. There could be no greater tragedy, however, than simply turning back to business as usual, refusing to honour Jo’s memory by pledging ourselves to a better way of doing politics and learning from her example. Politics can be better and more inspiring. All of us can defeat the voice of intolerance and hatred. Together, we can achieve the #BetterPolitics we so badly need. Let us make it so.