Shooting death of MP Jo Cox spurs reflection on 'nastiness' of British politics
Some say public official's death can't be viewed in isolation from prevailing 'ugly public mood' in Britain
Birstall is a long way from Westminster and its virulent politics, but they both ache with loss. In life, Jo Cox had worked from both — within the political system and without — to bring change, to help people here and abroad.
Now, the 41-year-old British MP's tragic death at the hands of a gunman, just a week before one of the U.K.'s most divisive votes, is bringing sudden change to a political landscape steeped in vitriol.
It has already unleashed a degree of finger pointing. Not for the killing itself, which is still under investigation — but for the venomous atmosphere that surrounds it.
In the town where she was born and raised, however, the mourning came first.
Birstall residents gathered Friday, under intermittent rain, around the central square where a mountain of flowers was steadily growing — just a few feet from the police cordon set up around the spot where Cox was attacked.
Four police officers moved closer to the memorial — in order to make people safe, one of them said.
"It's very sad she's been taken in such circumstances — a young mother, a young wife, everything to look forward to," said Abu Momoniat, 59, who lives in the area.
"To be taken in such a small town where she's been serving … It's just a tragedy, really."
"Everywhere the mood is just so down at the moment. Everyone is so shocked," said Aisha, who did not want her last name used. She broke down in tears as she spoke.
Later in the day, a vigil in the nearby town of Batley, which was part of Cox's constituency, drew a crowd of people of diverse ethnicities.
Party leaders pay respects
Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn also came to place flowers and pay their respects.
But as the tributes and the flowers poured in, the full-throttle sprint to next week's referendum on leaving the EU came to an unexpected stop.
Barely an hour after news broke of Cox's death at the hands of a man armed with a gun and a knife, campaigning for the June 23 referendum was suspended. A call centre for the Remain side was shuttered. Boris Johnson, the top campaigner for the Leave side, announced he would leave the trail. All the big guns fell silent.
A day later, the Conservatives announced they would not contest Cox's seat, which will eventually have to be filled in a byelection.
Other lawmakers of all stripes were in a reflective mood.
There has been an increase in vitriol in public debate. Disagreements are essential, but there's a feeling that there is more nastiness.- Yvette Cooper, Labour MP
"We don't know yet know, obviously, the circumstances in this case, but there has been an increase in vitriol in public debate," said Labour MP Yvette Cooper.
"Disagreements are essential, but there's a feeling that there is more nastiness."
Attack didn't occur in isolation, say some
Polly Toynbee, political columnist for the Guardian, went even further this morning, blaming "open and shocking" recklessness, the "finger-jabbing and overt racism."
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Explosive words, when set against the backdrop of Cox's support for refugees and immigrants (and for remaining in the EU), in a debate where those in support of an exit from the European Union, or Brexit, have used immigration as an argument against remaining with the EU.
"The attack on a public official cannot be viewed in isolation," she wrote. "It occurs against a backdrop of an ugly public mood in which we have been told to despise the political class, to distrust those who serve, to dehumanize those with whom we do not readily identify."
This country is no stranger to political violence against elected officials. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland it was a regular occurrence.
But it hasn't seen such an event in a generation — not since Conservative MP Ian Gow was killed in a car bombing by the IRA in 1990.
The coming vote would have been the second most crucial of Cox's political career.
The first was when she won her seat in last year's election.
That Cox had been an idealist who had done extensive humanitarian work, and been a dogged proponent of helping the disadvantaged, has left people bereft right across the country.
'You can't kill democracy'
At Parliament Square, beneath Big Ben in London, a steady stream of people came to lay flowers on the sidewalk near a large photo of Cox.
Others stood quietly, reading the heartfelt messages that had been left by mourners.
"We are so sorry," said one handwritten note attached to a bunch of white roses.
On a white placard growing dark with signatures, someone wrote, "You can't kill democracy."
I just wanted to remember her.- Man placing roses at Jo Cox memorial in London
"She had the same political beliefs as me, and this sort of thing doesn't happen often here," said a man who had come to place some roses.
"I just wanted to remember her."
Baroness Sheehan, a peer of the House of Lords, also started her day by placing some flowers on the sidewalk.
She had worked with Cox on an all-party initiative that Cox had set up to help people trapped within Syria who were not receiving any aid.
"She was an inspirational leader," Sheehan said, visibly emotional. "I'm so sad that she's gone."
With files from Tracy Seeley