Until the dreadful killing of Jo Cox last week, the last British MP to be murdered on duty, so to speak, was Ian Gow in 1990. Thankfully, it’s so rare an occurrence that there’s no standard commemorative protocol to be invoked on these occasions. The organisers of Thursday’s memorial event in Trafalgar Square had to make it up at short notice and they did a good job of it. I was there because I happened not to be working that afternoon and because I wanted to join with a public expression of opposition to the vile attack on our democratic representatives and institutions. I wanted to show support for our battered, maligned, precious Parliamentary democracy. I wanted to be there not because I agree with Jo Cox’s political views (I don’t) but because she was one of us, elected to office by us, and, as it turned out, put in harm’s way by us.
So no protocol then, but an event whose informality made it all the more moving, opening with the folk band Diddley Dee, a favourite of Jo’s (I can’t refer to her as Cox or even Ms Cox here – only ‘Jo’ seems right), who had played at her wedding. Then came Lily Allen, who sang ‘Somewhere Only We Know’, a song, we were told, that Jo enjoyed singing with her family. That personal association inevitably made it all the more heart-piercing, and Allen seemed as moved as any of us. There were other singers and other speakers, and thankfully no-one wheeled out a piano to play a plangent version of ‘Imagine’.
Celebrity humanitarians, Bono and Malala Yousafzai, did their pieces, though these seemed a little distant fromm the spirit of the occasion. There was, rightly, a huge cheer when Mariella Frostrup, MC for the event, wished Bernard Kenny a speedy recovery. And there was Brendan Cox, who spoke with warmth, humour, and grief about his wife. He displayed such strength and dignity that I wondered how he did it. And of course, he used the occasion to underline Jo’s support for the Remain campaign. I see nothing wrong with that. I’m sure, to use the cliché, it’s what she would have wanted. Given how and why she died, how could this not have been a political event?
The aeroplane that flew over the square trailing a Vote Leave banner was an oddly disturbing moment, partly because those of us directly below could not see what was on the banner and therefore what the intention was. A low flying plane, a crowd of people pressed into a small space, the political context: I saw genuine unease on many faces. It was a nasty and idiotic thing to do, but there has been much nastiness and idiocy on both sides in this campaign. I still can’t make my mind up whether the referendum has been a divisive and ill-tempered bunfight or a vigorous exercise in popular democracy. Both, I suppose.
A few other observations, for what they’re worth. The mainstream media inevitably picked out the few people in tears but those around me and most of the others I saw were gently defiant and almost joyful in their wish to remember and celebrate. Yet though I said above that this was a political event, I was surprised by how little politics there actually was in the speeches. Such was the emphasis on non-specific humanitarianism, on love, tolerance and respect, that Jo Cox came across as a high-profile charity worker rather than a politician.
The other, more uncomfortable, things that struck me were to do with the size and composition of the crowd. Trafalgar Square was not exactly overflowing with mourners. Yes, lots of people were still at work at the time, but there are thousands of non-tourists in central London, even on a weekday. It felt as if even this shocking event hadn’t jolted the majority of people out of their indifference and cynicism about politicians. And those that were there were overwhelmingly – by which I mean 99% – white. This in the heart of what is supposed to be the most diverse city on Earth. Why that was and what that means, I don’t know.
When I got home I learned that two thousand people had attended the contemporaneous memorial event in Batley. The town’s MP is brutally murdered in broad daylight while carrying out her duties, and 2,000 people, out of a population of 47,000, demonstrate their solidarity. Again, that doesn’t seem like a huge turn-out to me. Again, I don’t know what that means. Perhaps I expect too much of this crabby, suspicious political age.