Mind the gap

Murder victim Jo Cox on The Guardian cover: A country in shock

Murder victim Jo Cox on The Guardian cover: A country in shock

The best and the worst British traditions come to show in these last days of panic before Britain holds a referendum about the membership in the European Union.

Her last tweet sounded like a battle cry: "My hubby @MrBrendanCox & children taking part in the battle of the #Thames - because we're #StrongerIn #Remain." Last Wednesday the river which runs through London was the scene of a flotilla fight between those who want Britain to stay in the European Union and those who want the country to leave it. On the day after Jo Cox, a Labour MP from Batley & Span was shot and killed during a meeting with her constituency in Birstall. The man who shot her was quoted shouting "Britain first". Jo Cox was the mother of two young children and she was a shooting star in the Labour Party. She was the first one in her family who went to college and won a place in Cambridge. Elected to parliament in 2015 she left behind a legacy of working tirelessly for children refugees, human rights and a socially more just world in general.

Great Britain is in shock after this political murder. A hard political debate is part of the political culture. This murder is the very sad climax of a EU referendum campaign which turned verbally unusually violent. All EU referendum campaigns were immediately suspended at least until the weekend. The Labour party leadership met in Westminster for a vigil. Even the political enemies sent condolences via Twitter. The motive of the murderer is so far not clear. But a possible connection between verbal violence and actual attack cannot be denied. The mood in the country and in Westminster was sombre. The EU referendum debate has gone terribly wrong.

The UK always had a special role within the EU. Britain got an opt out from Schengen, the Euro and from the Political Union. But recently 10 Downing Street had radiated pure signs of panic. Even this special role was in danger, the British people threaten not to listen to the reasonable positions of the heads of government and opposition. They seem to believe the often untrue statements of the Brexiters. Martin Wolf in the FT called them exasperated „Project Lie“. Opinion polls gave the Vote Leave camp a slight lead. In the last weeks before the decisive EU referendum on June 23rd the British Islands seemed to drift even further away from the continent. Britain looked as if it was about to leave the EU.

„I am really sorry to tell you this but I will certainly vote for Brexit", even a Greek-British citizen said recently. It was early evening, a reception with house concert in the elegant London district of Kensington. Cold Prosecco sat bubbling in our glasses, the temperature of our small talk fell below Zero. Half Greek, half British, double nationality, wealthy, open minded and he votes to leave the EU? For decades the EU helped Greece with billions of regional aid, his Greek family can come, live and work in the United Kingdom and he himself, he can travel wherever he wants to go. „The EU is a failed project“ he says undeterred, „why should we stay?“ This Greek Brit, who does not want to see his name in the newspaper, is clearly not the typical EU skeptic. He, like MP Gisela Stuart is maybe part of the minority of the over identified newcomers in this multicultural land of immigrants. Stuart is one of the few Labour politicians who is openly campaigning for Brexit. She is Co-chair of Vote Leave: „Britain should play a significant global role in Nato, in the UN or WHO. But I cannot give my vote to an institution, which has proven to be incapable to adapt to the modern world.“ Stuart is talking about the EU. She speaks with German accent because she grew up in Lower Bavaria: „It is often the case that it is for the foreigner to explain the natives what he has and what he could loose“, she explains.

That’s what Britons needed. As if they don’t already have a very clear feeling that they are living on great islands with a rather unimportant little continent next to it. Great Britain is a former empire which stretched to Pakistan and India. For many, especially those who came from Pakistan or India, Asia might feel in some aspects closer than Europe. Many Britons with Asian origin see the cultural richness of their society threatened by the EU. No wonder the referendum battle brought groups like „Muslims for Britain“ to the surface, who campaign for leaving the EU. „The EU has banned mangos from India because of fruit flies“, sings rapper Mr. Mango in a video called: „EU Kolu Bach Keh Rehi! Beware oft he EU!“

The nerves are stretched, the weapons are out. Prime minister David Cameron recently even called for a surprise press conference to accuse the Brexit camp „to tell complete untruth to Britons“. If a prime minister calls his own ministers liars, the BBC asked him, was this not a sign of panic to loose the referendum? „Not at all“, explained Cameron, „I only want to put the truth against those lies.“

In short: He is in panic. He is about to lose the biggest battle of his political life. Cameron had called the referendum to calm the EU sceptics on the backbenches of his own party. This strategy did not work. On the contrary. A good third of the conservative Tory MPs and five of his own ministers are openly campaigning for Brexit. Meanwhile old friends in the party and even ministers are calling each other liars and other names, seemingly without any consideration for the time after, when they might have to work on the same side again.

Iain Duncan Smith resigned in March as minister for pensions and employment. Today he is one of the most vocal critics of EU and the prime minister. He called George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, „Pinocchio who grows a long nose“ because the finance minister dared to point out advantages for the British economy if the country stays in the EU. At a breakfast with correspondents he said to profil: „The conservative party was always a broad church. We have always had space for diverse views. We are used to robust debates.“ Even more, he adds: In Britain as in the United States the time before the elections is the time to fight out positions and „build alliances for the time after“.

This is the contrary of the Austrian way to always seek consensus. The lively debate is one of the great characteristics of British political culture. But in the last days of the referendum campaign both sides have stopped fighting elegantly. Instead they seem to kick each other with their feet. Boris Johnson – former mayor of London, who would now like to replace David Cameron as Prime minister – did not stop comparing the EU with Hitler. Both have wanted to dominate Europe, he said recently. After even his closest allies critized him for the deeply wrong comparison he tried to row back a bit: „There is something irritatingly undemocratic about the EU.“

In this he has a point. Britons feel rightly that it was them who invented democracy and not the Eurocrats in Brussels. Except that Britons are Eurocrats, too. Cameron has to explain this complicated position: Yes, he knows about the lack of democracy in the EU-institutions, but would rather reform those than leave the club. This complex content does not fit easily in a tweet. A lot less easy than a comparison with Hitler.

„We still have to listen to this bullshit till June 23rd“ said an obviously exhausted Peter Mandelson when briefing foreign correspondents in London. The former British EU commissioner in Brussels knows that it was always hard to sell the EU. And that this has become even more impossible due to refugees and Euro crisis. He also feels that the whole referendum has little to do with the EU itself: „We are canon fodder in a civil war within the conservative party.“ Lord Mandelson knows what he is talking about. One of the really great British traditions is after all the political intrigue in the Palaces of Westminister. For hundreds of years political haggling has been practiced there. Not by accident Mandelson himself has been called „Prince of darkness“.

David Cameron can only hope that one of the key British characteristics wins over all the others: the British way to „Keep calm and carry on“. This was the slogan on government posters in 1939 when the Third Reich bombed British cities. Since the slogan was re-discovered in 2000 it has been printed on millions of tea cups and is at least among tourists the purest expression of British national character.

For the 23rd of June, the day of the referendum, another legendary but maybe not authentic newspaper headline from the Thirties might describe the mood on the British islands perfectly well: „Fog over the channel – continent is cut off.“

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz