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Shooting death of MP Jo Cox spurs reflection on 'nastiness' of British politics

As Bristall residents gathered Friday around a growing mountain of flowers in the city's central square to mourn British MP Jo Cox, fatally shot by a gunman Thursday, some in the media and public life denounced the increasingly vitriolic tenor of British politics and "ugly public mood" against which her death took place.

Some say public official's death can't be viewed in isolation from prevailing 'ugly public mood' in Britain

Staff from Britain's opposition Labour Party, including MP John Cryer, left, and Iain McNicol, right, the party's general secretary, pay their respects at Parliament Square outside the House of Parliament in London for their colleague Jo Cox, the 41-year-old British member of Parliament shot to death Thursday in northern England. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

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.

Leeds Central Labour MP Hilary Benn offering comfort near the memorial for Cox in her hometown of Birstall. Thomas Mair, 52, was charged with murder Friday in connection with Cox's death. (Tracy Seeley/CBC)

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.

People line up to sign a book of condolences at city hall in Batley, a town in Cox's constituency. Cox was about to attend a meeting with her constituents in Birstall when she was attacked by a man wielding a gun and a knife. (Tracy Seeley/CBC)

"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.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, left, and Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn lay floral tributes in Birstall. The two sides campaigning for the Leave and Remain sides of the referendum on leaving the EU suspended their campaigns in wake of Cox's death. (Danny Lawson/Associated Press)

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.

Cox, 41, was a married mother of two young children who represented the constituency of Batley and Spen. She was elected to Parliament as a Labour MP in the May 2015 election. (Yui Mok/Press Association/Reuters)

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."

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.

Two women lay flowers tributes to Cox in Birstall. (Peter Byrne/Associated Press)

"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.

Residents of the ethnically diverse town of Batley in West Yorkshire gather for a vigil in Cox's honour. (Tracy Seeley/CBC)

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.

A woman looks at tributes to Cox on Parliament Square in London. Cox was a champion of humanitarian causes, a proponent of immigration and a supporter of Britain remaining in the EU. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

"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."

A young woman cries as she lays flowers in Birstall, the West Yorkshire town where Cox lived with her husband and two children. (Peter Byrne/Associated Press)

About the Author

Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.

With files from Tracy Seeley