The United Kingdom has 650 MPs in Parliament for a population of 64 million. The average population in an MP constituency is around 70,000, allowing lawmakers to be intimately involved with constituents in a manner somewhat unfamiliar to Indian citizens. MPs divide their time between parliament in London and their constituencies, engage voters in various ways and take written correspondence seriously. It is a setting that facilitates different forms of political ambition and allows committed activists to take to politics as a form of public service. Labour Party MP Jo Cox was a shining example of commitment to the public good and because of that her senseless murder is being mourned deeply in Britain and across the world.
There is so much in Cox’s life to admire. A ‘proud Yorkshire lass’ as she described herself, she was the first in her family to go to university. She said she lacked social connections and the right accent at Cambridge but the university shaped her political convictions. She became an aid worker and went on to be the head of policy and advocacy at Oxfam and worked for the Freedom Fund, an anti-slavery charity, travelling widely and pursuing her passion for social justice and equality. Cox was universally liked, the media has reported MPs weeping in Westminster, candle-lit vigils are being held and voters have tearfully related how she helped them out.
Cox straddled different worlds. She was attacked when she was offering advice to constituents in a village but as a first-time MP she made her mark lobbying on humanitarian concerns in Syria. She set up an all-party parliamentary group and drew attention to the 95,000 unaccompanied Syrian children stranded in Europe and urged the UK government to take in 3,000 children as refugees. She nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour party leadership but did not eventually vote for him and did not hesitate expressing her disagreements with him. Not yet 42, Jo Cox showed all that an parliamentarian can be.
Her death will scar Britain in ways that are difficult to anticipate. It is likely that she was a victim of a hate crime. Her assailant reportedly has links with a far Right group and shouted “Britain First” repeatedly while he shot and stabbed her. Britain has had intense policy debates ahead of next week’s referendum to decide if it would ‘Remain’ in or ‘Leave’ the European Union. But a political murder in a Western democracy arising from differences on immigration throws fresh light on the effects of polarising rhetoric on communities. Columnist Polly Toynbee has written that the referendum campaign “has stirred up anti-migrant sentiment that used to be confined to outbursts from the far fringes of British politics”. The UK has again bitterly discovered the upheaval that results from the fringe being appropriated by the mainstream. It is a lesson we in India cannot forget.