Silence of Leave campaign deafening

World by Gwynne Dyer

dyerThe British parliament met in London on Monday, June 20 so that MPs of every party could express their horror and disgust at the June 16 murder of their colleague Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire. That included the leaders of the Brexit campaign, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. But here’s the odd thing: up to that point, the Brexit leaders had said nothing — not a word, for more than three days.

After Cox’s murder, the political campaign for the June 23 referendum on Britain’s continued membership in the European Union (EU) was suspended for two days. But other politicians didn’t go to ground like Johnson, Gove and their friends.

Prime Minister David Cameron, the leader of Johnson and Gove’s own Conservative Party, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, and a host of fellow MPs gathered in Parliament Square on Friday, June 17 to light candles and lay flowers in tribute to the slain MP, but the Brexit leaders were conspicuous by their absence.

Cameron, Corbyn and many other senior politicians went on TV to condemn what had happened, but Johnson, Gove and their rather embarrassing ally Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), did not. They simply vanished from public view without so much as a ritual statement that their “thoughts and prayers” were with Jo Cox’s family.

There are only two possible explanations for this curious non-event. One is that space aliens abducted Johnson, Gove and Farage for their usual nefarious purposes, and returned them to Earth once the referendum campaign resumed with their memories wiped clean by anal probes. Otherwise, they surely would have mentioned the murder. The other is that their media advisers told them that the only safe course was to say nothing.

The Brexiteers were in a difficult position because Jo Cox was a high-profile campaigner for Remain, the campaign urging Britons to vote to stay in the EU, and the man who killed her, Tommy Mair, was clearly of the opposite persuasion. As he shot and stabbed her, according to eyewitnesses, he was shouting, “Britain first” or “Put Britain first”.

Mair’s motive became even clearer on Saturday when he was brought before a judge to be charged. Asked to state his name, he replied “Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain.” The second half of his response is the slogan at the heart of the Leave campaign’s argument for Brexit.

Obviously Johnson, Gove and Farage knew nothing about Mair’s intentions, nor approved of them in any way. But people could reasonably argue that the increasingly nasty tone of the Leave campaign may have served as a trigger for Mair’s crime.

In the early stages of the campaign the debate was mostly about the relative economic advantages of leaving or staying in the EU, but the Leave side clearly lost that argument, and shifted the debate instead onto the hot-button topic of immigration.

This involved a good deal of lying, like the ridiculous Leave claim that Turkey was shortly going to become an EU member, giving 70 million Turks the right to move to Britain. Turkey has no realistic chance of becoming an EU member in the foreseeable future, and if it ever did fulfil the entrance requirements Britain could simply veto it.

The dog-whistle racism of Leave’s anti-immigration campaign was at its worst in a poster that UKIP’s Farage unveiled just two hours before Cox was murdered, showing an endless column of young men of Middle Eastern appearance marching into Europe and captioned “Breaking Point”. In other words, quit the EU or Britain will drown in a sea of Muslim fake refugees.

The poster was immediately condemned even by Farage’s allies — Gove said he “shuddered” when he saw it. But Gove did NOT go on to say that Middle Eastern refugees who are let in by other EU countries do not gain the right to enter Britain. To admit that would undermine the whole anti-immigrant strategy of the Leave campaign.

That’s something Gove didn’t want to be questioned on. Neither did he or any of his Leave colleagues want to be questioned on possible links between the Leave campaign’s general strategy of claiming that the British people are enslaved by faceless “EU bureaucrats in Brussels” and Mair’s cry of “Freedom for Britain”.

So the Brexit leaders took their media managers’ advice and hid themselves away after the assassination of Jo Cox. When Mair gave his name as “Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain” in court on Saturday, they hid for another day, fearing guilt by association.

Now they are back out in the open, hoping nobody noticed their absence. And maybe they didn’t, because the British media certainly abstained from comment on it.

But it is also possible that quite a few ordinary voters did notice it, and drew their own conclusions from it. We’ll find out on June 24.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.