London

For what it’s worth

Jo Cox memorial event

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 decent job of it. I was there because I happened not to be working that afternoon, I happened to be in central London, and because I wanted to join with a public expression of opposition to the vile attack on our representatives and I wanted to show support for our admittedly imperfect Parliamentary democracy. I wanted to be there not because I agree with Jo Cox’s political views (I don’t) but because she was 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 seemed fitting, opening with the folk band Diddley Dee, who had played at her wedding. Then came Lily Allen, who sang ‘Somewhere Only We Know’, a song, we were told, that the Cox family enjoyed singing. Celebrity humanitarians, Bono and Malala Yousafzai, did their pieces, though these seemed a little distant from 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 displayed a strength and dignity was left me wondering how he did it. Of course, he used the occasion to underline Jo Cox’s support for the Remain campaign. I’m a Leaver, but I see nothing wrong with that. I’m sure, to use the cliché, that 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 an ill-judged and idiotic thing to do, but there has been much poor judgment and idiocy on both sides in this EU 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 rather than upset. 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. Then again, I recall reading that it was her concern with refugees that got her into politics in the first place.

The other thing that struck me was to do with the size and composition of the crowd. Trafalgar Square was not exactly overflowing with celebrants. 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 close to 100% — white. This, at the memorial for a woman who was noted for her work for refugees. 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. It’s a strange political age we’re living through.