The horrific murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by Thomas Mair, who's just been sentenced to a whole-life term in prison, did not take place in a vacuum. It was committed in the feral and toxic political weather of an EU referendum campaign dominated by a rising tide of nativist, xenophobic poison, dredged up from a swamp of anti-migrant bigotry, racism, and nationalism.
It is a swamp that began life as puddle on the margins of society but which in recent years has grown to the point where it now dominates our political culture, fed by a relentless campaign conducted via the pages of the right wing press, websites, and by right wing populist parties and politicians. It's aim in the context of the EU was to associate Brexit with patriotism, in the process inferring that those against exiting Europe were unpatriotic if not traitors.
I happened to be in London at the time and attended the vigil that was held in Westminster the evening after Jo Cox was murdered. The sense of shock among the hundreds present is one I will never forget. How could something like this happen here? people were asking themselves, struggling to make sense of something we normally associate with Germany or Italy in the 1930s not Britain in 2016.
Though the word 'fascism' suffers from overuse in our political discourse, much worse is complacency in the belief that it died with Hitler. It did not. What should be borne in mind is that fascism does not start with brownshirts and stiff leather boots. On the contrary, this is how it ends. Fascism is given birth to by society's collective consciousness at a given time. It arises within us in response to external conditions of crisis - economic and social - that leave the status quo and the values that underpin it bereft of answers and solutions. This then opens up space for radical, hitherto unacceptable, ideas and values to take their place. And it is here where the mainstream media and those in positions of political and ideological influence come to the fore in shaping the inchoate and growing anger and confusion wrought by said economic crisis and resulting hardship to deflect blame away from the structural inadequacies of the system that is responsible onto convenient scapegoats: migrants, refugees, the unemployed, and so on.
Henry Wallace was Franklin Roosevelt's vice president before being replaced by Harry Truman in 1945. Three years later he made an unsuccessful bid for the White House as the Progressive Party's presidential candidate. In a 1944 New York Times piece, warning of the dangers of 'American fascism', Wallace wrote: "With a fascist the problem is never how best to present the truth to the public but how best to use the news to deceive the public into giving the fascist and his group more money or more power."
Step forward Donald J Trump.
In Britain we have been persuaded that the unemployed, the disabled, the weak, the poor, foreigners, Muslims, and so on exist outwith the bounds of decent British values, and are therefore deserving of being attacked, punished, hounded, demonised and despised, along with those who dare speak up and defend them. We are made to feel that those groups constitute a threat to society, when in truth it is the politicians, political parties, and those who own the newspapers and media organisations that have shaped this narrative who constitute the threat. That they have been able to enlist public support for their campaign of anger, vindictiveness, and callous disregard for the plight of the weakest and most vulnerable among us, this is testament to the power of propaganda when it achieves its primary aim of having us believe that our opinions and attitudes are freely formed and held. As Joseph Goebbels observed, "Propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated are confident they are acting on their own free will."
I am against the death penalty on principle. However the murder of Jo Cox, the sick and twisted fascist nature of it, has tested this principle as few others have. While Mair acted alone he was undoubtedly buoyed in carrying out his crime by the climate of bigotry and hatred of 'the other' created by peddlers of the politics of division and scapegoating in the context of a campaign on Britain's membership of the EU that shamed our democracy.
Brexit is the UK manifestation of the resurgence of the far right across the West in response to the collapse of the political centre ground. The reason for its collapse is the worst economic crisis to occur since the 1930s, when in similar conditions the liberal order of that era collapsed to be replaced by far right parties pushing far right nostrums on the need for national renewal and the demonisation of those of an alien culture, nationality, and/or religion. We all know what happened next.
However the past does not need to be prologue. We can come together to combat and crush this menace before the reactionary ideas that act as its foundations become normalised.
Indeed we must crush it. And soon.
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