A Guy’s View: The example of “Jo” Cox and the price of democracy
Just over a week ago, a member of the British parliament was stabbed and shot while in her constituency. This was a major shock to many people.
Helen Joanne “Jo” Cox was a British Labour Party politician. She was the Member of Parliament for the constituency of Batley and Spen from her election in May 2015 until her death 13 months later in June 2016.
Jo Cox, as she was affectionately known, was a British woman with a conscience. She worked to make the lives of people better. She was involved in the anti-slavery movement. It was easy for her to be too busy to consider the lives of other people who were from a different class from hers, but that was not her nature. She was the kind of politician that democratic politics intended politicians to be.
To a person who was born in the west, democracy may be the most attractive form of government there is. This almost inherent belief encourages us to take its challenges for granted. It is not always obvious to us that it could be more difficult to maintain than less tolerant systems of governance.
There was something beautiful about the strong idealism of The Right Excellent Errol Walton Barrow, pitted against the piercing incisiveness of Jon Michael Geoffrey Manningham “Tom” Adams; the belligerence of Sir Branford Mayhew Taitt in contrast to the smoothness of Sir Henry De. B. Forde; the pragmatism of Sir Lloyd Erskine Sandiford and the efficiency of Sir Louis Randall Tull. There might have been few areas of public agreement between these local politicians, but one never got any impression of hatred or non-political discord.
Of course, there were always people in the rum shop cussing one side or the other. This was good theatre. But those cuss birds were drinking buddies and the best of friends, although having different political views.
One is never sure how much the appearance of disagreement between political combatants influences people like the man who decided to slay Jo Cox. The Conservative Prime Minister spoke eloquently about his now deceased Labour colleague, but there is a good chance that he never said a good word about her while she was alive. But that is the nature of western democratic politics and is to be expected. The question that needs to be contemplated is what perception was communicated to his supporters. Did he and his party paint a picture of a woman that was not operating in the interest of Britain and should be cut down, or was she merely a person with a different point of view?
Politicians know what they think about what they say about people who oppose them, but they should also take responsibility for the impressions communicated without being expressly stated. There is no doubt in my mind that the Conservative Prime Minister would never have entertained the idea of an opposition Member of Parliament being killed because of her politics. Maybe, nothing he said would have given a contrary impression to a stable individual, but there is always a hearer who is not only loud, but stupid or unstable. Is anyone responsible for this unfortunate soul’s warped ideas?
The British Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are given extra security that is not available to the ordinary Member of Parliament who has to canvass his or her constituency which is made up of the supporters of all parties, the educated and the ignorant, the sane and the insane, and all shades of opinion one might imagine.
Occasionally we would see pictures or hear stories of parliamentarians in other parts of the world coming to physical blows. This was always seen as a funny episode and a demonstration of that parliament’s backwardness and inability to grasp the rudiments of democracy. Those of us who were born into this system understand that the very reason for the parliament is to allow for verbal jabs and ensure that no physical blows are necessary. The British incident might suggest to us that it may be necessary to see that there is some responsibility for the effect of words.
A parliament ceases to be useful if ideas cannot be vigorously presented and defended, notwithstanding that others disagree with those ideas. It would be difficult, in an era of free communication of ideas and debates, to know how to protect the unstable person from having to grapple with views that are alien to him or her.
Jo Cox was in her constituency campaigning on a point of conscience. There was then a raging debate over whether Britain should remain as part of the European Union. The Conservative Prime Minister was canvassing for Britain should stay in. Although Jo Cox was a member of the Opposition in Parliament, she too was canvassing for Britain to remain as part of the European Union. Her position was not informed by her political party.
The man who killed her was reportedly heard to say that Britain should be first. He obviously held a view different from Cox’s. This different view was enough to justify to him that Cox was the enemy and should be killed.
The fact that there was a referendum in which all British citizens could vote to decide, was not appreciated by the accused man. He had the right to cast his vote as he saw fit. He sought to deny Cox the right to persuade others to do the same thing.
The essence of democracy was admirably demonstrated in the Brexit debate and referendum. However, sometimes, even the best of anything may need to be reviewed and tweaked. When a country decides an issue by 51 per cent over 49 per cent, there is room for a more complex decision-making process than a bare majority. Some countries attempt to fix this through proportional representation, but this does not lend itself to a yes or no one-off referendum.
Democracy is the best system of Government that we know, but it is not always tidy. Those who care for it must be eternally vigilant and be prepared to do what is necessary to prune and mend it as necessary. Responsible public statements by politicians may be a part of the needed maintenance in the new intolerant world in which we live.