The violence of Jo Cox’s murder seems at odds with Britain’s political culture. It isn’t. Political violence is sadly common in British history.
Let me start an article on the murder of a mother of two in a way that might seem inappropriate: with trivia questions. But please humour me for a moment. It is leading to a serious point. Can you tell me who was the last American president to be assassinated? Of course, you can. If you are interested enough in politics to be reading this blog you know it was JFK. Even if you weren’t you’d probably have been able to hazard a guess. If you are the right age then you can probably tell me how you heard about his death. That’s reflective of the fact that the slaying of presidents is baked into how we think about American politics. It’s happened four times including to the most celebrated occupant that office has ever had. Heck, there’s even a children’s book about the subject.
So what would have happened if instead I asked you about the last British Prime minister to be killed? I suspect many of you would have struggled. Perhaps you would have wondered if it was a trick question and doubted that such an event has ever happened. It has but my guess is that unless you have at some point specifically looked it up (or take a particular interested in the history of the early nineteenth century) then you wouldn’t have known. The answer is that it’s Spencer Percival who in 1812 was killed by a merchant aggrieved at the government’s failure to provide him with compensation.
That sort of sums up how I’d felt about violence in British politics. It was rare, remote and not really that important. America had its assassinations, the French have their tradition of street protest and direct action, we have a rather staid and ritualised parliamentary democracy. We’ve not had a civil war in modern times. And extremists have never had much electoral success in Britain. While in much of Europe Communists and Socialists vied to be the voice of the left, Britain’s Labour Party has been able to brush aside challenges from Marxist parties without much difficulty. Until UKIP came along the Tories faced little serious competition on the Right and UKIP, unlike the Front National, Golden Dawn or Jobbik, doesn’t have neo-Nazi roots. It is a product of the right rather than the extreme right. And the SNP’s brand of nationalism is clearly of the civic rather than ethnic variety and is pursued more or less wholly by constitutional means. For these reasons it’s easy to construct a view of British politics as placid and confined to the mainstream.
That’s probably why when I first saw that Cox had been shot one way my horror manifested itself was in a sense that this just wasn’t very British. I wrote to a friend back in the UK: “we’re not America. This kind of thing shouldn’t be happening”. By contrast, when Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords was seriously injured in a shooting in Arizona that seemed horrifying but not actually surprising, not when mass shootings are as depressingly common as they are in the US.
But on reflection my instinct on this point was wrong. Murder may be more common in the US but the political variety seems at least as common in the UK.
For example, since 1945 three members of the US congress have been killed. One was not deliberately targeted but was instead onboard a commercial airliner when it was shot down by Soviet air defence under the misapprehension that it was a military plane. Another was killed by a cult. While the organisations message had strong political undertones, the principal motivation for the killing appears to have been religious. That leaves only one case with an unambiguously political motivation, the 1968 killing of Robert Kennedy.
By contrast, in the same period six MPs have been assassinated. Apart from Jo Cox, they were all victims of Irish paramilitary groups. And that hints at a larger point. The peaceful image of British politics that I and others had depends on putting a mental cordon around events in Northern Ireland. But there’s no good reason to do that. Despite Republican efforts, Northern Ireland remains part of the UK, and the conflict both drew in the British army and spilled over onto the mainland. And we should not forget how violent the Troubles were. Indeed they are one of the worst (and longest lasting) civil conflicts to have afflicted a developing country. They resulted in more than three and a half thousand fatalities and turned Northern Ireland into a virtual warzone for decades. And they very nearly broke Britain’s run of not having any Prime Ministers killed: had Margaret Thatcher been using a different part of her suite at the Grand Hotel in Brighton when the IRA detonated a bomb in a nearby room she would almost certainly have been killed.
Now the temptation might be to conclude that now there is (relative) peace in Northern Ireland, that a placid stereotype of British politics is now justified. But I don’t really see that.
You can find examples of all the kinds of violence you would expect to see in a developed country in recent British history.
We’ve had terrorism of many different varieties:
- the men behind the 7/7 attacks were Al Qaeda supporters who’d been trained in Pakistan;
- Lee Rigby was murdered by two men who straddled the line between Al Qaeda membership and acting as ‘lone wolfs’;
- The Labour MP Stephen Timms was stabbed multiple times by an Al Qaeda sympathiser who appears to have self-radicalised based on sermons she read online;
- the man who conducted the Soho pub bombing was a neo-Nazi;
- an animal rights extremist has been convicted of planting ‘an incendiary device’ at Oxford colleges;
- a potential witness in the trial of Sikh militants accused of blowing up a 747 a murdered on a busy street in Southall;
- a number of Irish groups remain active though far less so than in the past;
- And of course a number of British nationals have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIL.
We’ve also had plenty of politically motivated street violence with ideologically heterozygous origins. We have multiple examples of so-called ‘race riots’ like those in Notting Hill, Brixton, Toxteth, Broadwater Farm and Tottenham. Conversely, there are the actions of the EDL.
There are also cases of demonstrations on behalf of left-wing causes turning violent as happened during Vietnam War protests, the miners strike, the poll tax riots, anti-capitalist protests in the 2000s and most recently the anti-fees demonstrations in 2010.
I think it’s important that we grasp that Britons have no special immunity to violence. The UK is not a theatre in which it is safe to shout fire. If you dehumanise an other – be they immigrants or the Tories – you are putting them at risk. If you suggest that our democracy is so broken that change is impossible, you may find someone drawing the implication that it is acceptable to try and force change. And if you present ordinary political disputes as matters of extreme – perhaps existential – importance then maybe someone will take you at your word and react disproportionately. As Alex Massie wrote in the hours following Cox’s murder:
When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged. You cannot turn around and say, ‘Mate, you weren’t supposed to take it so seriously. It’s just a game, just a ploy, a strategy for winning votes.’