Oli Coulson is 18, and an EU referendum campaigner in Cumbria. On Thursday, when he heard the MP Jo Cox had been murdered, he and his team immediately suspended their campaign. Two days later, he made the 260-mile trip to London, where he spent a grey Saturday afternoon standing in Parliament Square in front of the impromptu shrine to the MP.
It would be easy to mistake Coulson for a student europhile, or a Corbyn fan. But he is a dedicated eurosceptic – the director of Vote Leave Cumbria. Standing quietly in his smart suit, he explained he had met Cox, they had shaken hands. “She was courteous,” he said. He believed the murder will “change politics forever”.
He continued: “PMQs is so shouty and I hope that will end. I hope when the referendum campaign starts again the divisiveness, the constant bickering, ends.
“I hope all the negativity ends and it becomes a campaign of ideas, which is what it should have been from the start.”
The grass was covered with flowers, cards and other tributes, including scribbled letters from Labour MPs and a bouquet wrapped in a Remain leaflet. But Coulson is a reminder that the murder of Jo Cox hasn’t just shaken her political tribe. Other messages were simply protestations of outrage. One read: “We are NOT Remain/Leave, Tory, Labour or Lib Dem tonight. We are Britons with a belief in parliamentary democracy.” Another simply said: “This is an insult to democracy.”
Cox did not die in a vacuum.The day before, she and her family had joined the “Battle of Brexit” on the Thames. She was known as a refugee campaigner – the morning of her murder, Nigel Farage had already sparked controversy with a “Breaking Point” poster featuring a line of refugees.
For those who had already been complaining about the hate-fuelled rhetoric, an “I told you so” can’t be far from their lips.
But focusing on the EU referendum ignores a wider divide: between parliamentary democracy and a majoritarian fury. Between respectful disagreement on immigration and dog whistle claims. Between reporting on facts and the kind of paranoid internet conspiracy that labels Cox’s death a “false flag”. The kind of divide that has echoes in US politics and European populism.
Winning this fight is more important than whether we vote Leave or Remain, because losing it means undermining our constitutional fabric altogether. It’s an important enough fight to recall Parliament. It’s an important enough to summon a young Cumbrian campaigner who didn’t share Cox’s politics all the way to London.
If Cox’s murder changes anything, it should change our willingness to listen. Another visitor to the memorial, Anne Ryder has voted Conservative for years. Standing by a wall of messages, she said that after the last couple of weeks she is not sure what was truth or scaremongering anymore.
She no longer knows if she is Conservative or not. As she put it: “I just want people to live fairly and justly, at peace with each other.”