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22 June 2016

Leader: Pandora’s box has been opened

The referendum has unleashed dark forces and furies into the body politic and we shall be living with the consequences for years to come.

By New Statesman

“The weight of this sad time we must obey.
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

Edgar, at the end of “King Lear”

The House of Commons is at its best and most dignified during national crises or at times of personal tragedy, when politicians of all parties can speak what they feel, not what they ought to say. On Monday 20 June, MPs returned to parliament to honour the memory of their fallen colleague, Jo Cox, the 41-year-old married mother of two young children who was murdered as she carried out her duties. It was a solemn and moving occasion.

Ms Cox was a local girl in the best sense. Educated at grammar school and Cambridge, she represented the town in which she was born and grew up, Batley in West Yorkshire, and she was killed close to a local library where she had come to hold her weekly surgery. No pious ideologue, she was a humanitarian and internationalist. As a former head of policy for Oxfam, she had a special interest in and knowledge of foreign affairs, international development and the struggles and suffering of the wretched of the Earth.

As our correspondent John Bew – who started working with Ms Cox on a project about humanitarian intervention when she contacted him after reading one of his NS articles on Syria – writes, she “frequently sought out those in other trenches” and was “strikingly disregarding of tribalism”. She was one of the brightest talents of the 2015 intake.

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Ms Cox was murdered just as the referendum campaign turned especially nasty, with the intensification of xenophobic, anti-migrant rhetoric, and with each side accusing the other of lying and bad faith. Goaded on by Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party but aided and abetted by the smooth-talking Michael Gove, the increasingly preposterous Boris Johnson and the right-wing press, the Brexiteers ensured that immigration became the central issue of a dispiriting campaign. Their gambit was calculated and born of desperation, because they knew that the economic case for Brexit was feeble and had been discredited by any number of independent bodies, from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Bank of England to the International Monetary Fund.

Yet, in the aftermath of the referendum, it will be difficult to reseal Pandora’s box. Dark forces and furies have been unleashed into the body politic and we shall be living with the consequences for years to come.

Never in recent times has our trust in elites been so weak nor our faith in the wisdom of elected representatives so fragile. Expertise is wilfully dismissed or disregarded. Independent organisations such as the IFS are traduced as being in the pay of Brussels. Conspiracy theories abound and proliferate. No sooner has a referendum been held than there are immediate calls for the exercise to be repeated. David Cameron has not helped matters by setting bogus net migration targets, knowing full well that they can never be met while there is free movement within the European Union. At least Jeremy Corbyn spoke the truth on this matter, however inconvenient it might have been for Remain campaigners.

Our European partners have been watching the unfolding events in Britain with bewilderment. Ours is a superficially becalmed society, but eruptions keep happening. The United Kingdom is far from united. The English Question has yet to be answered. Our two main parties are divided and fractious. The referendum, as Stephen Bush writes in our cover story, has exposed a new culture war between metropolitan liberals and those who have been left behind by globalisation. And the Labour Party is discovering just how disaffected many of its traditional voters are.

The death of Jo Cox brought an abrupt halt to the campaign. Suddenly there was world enough and time for pause, reflection and even re-evaluation. It did not last. Nor should it have. However, the way we do our politics must change. A new spirit of realism and honesty should take hold after the referendum, which must mean no more net migration caps or false promises. We must aspire to move on from what Peter Oborne has called “post-truth” politics, and this can only happen if our media – the way we report on and write about politics – change as well. The political culture has grown rank and foul. There has to be a better way. 

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This article appears in the 04 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain