The Null Device

From farce to tragedy

Britain's tantrum about whether to remain a member of the EU has been burbling on malevolently, like some kind of grotesque pantomime. The Leave side has been advancing spectacularly, given largely a free ride by the right-leaning tabloids, and has emerged from the depths of absurdity to within grasp of victory. Leave has been fronted mainly by a disingenuous Boris Johnson, using all his Oxford debating society skills, Telegraph editorial experience and classically-educated raconteurial eloquence to posit an argument he is on record as not believing in, buttressed by a Gish Gallop of trivially debunkable urban legends and outright untruths about overbearing EU regulations. it is clear that for him, the prize is not the UK, free at last of the tethers of Brussels and sailing the high seas like a mighty Elizabethan galleon, once again regaining its world-spanning empire due to the innate British genius for free trade, but Boris Johnson moving into 10 Downing St., perhaps even before the next general election. To his right is Nigel Farage, the affable (if you're an older white Englishman, at least) reactionary, pint in hand, telling it like it is and pouring scorn on left-wing metropolitan-elite bullshit, from global warming and finite natural resources to ladies in the workplace and smoking being harmful.

The past week started as a victory lap for the Leave campaign, buoyed by polls giving them a commanding 6-10% lead over Remain (also likely to be inflated by the asymmetry of engagement between the two sides; it is hard to imagine someone who loves the EU with the passion with which the hardcore Europhobes despise it). Remain seemed to be flailing desperately, the chancellor even resorting to threatening voters with punitive tax hikes if Leave won. Leave, meanwhile, stopped pretending that their argument is about bloodless economic calculation and got to the real (red) meat of the argument: the Bloody Foreigners. A poster was produced, showing vast queues of brown-skinned, scarily Islamic-looking refugees befouling England's green and pleasant land with their presence, its framing (wittingly or otherwise) lifted from a Nazi propaganda film from the 1940s. Then there was the flotilla: Farage (the champion of the British fisherman, who sat on the EU Fisheries Committee but declined to attend most of the meetings) leading a group of fishing boats up the Thames in protest, with a counterprotest led by Bob Geldof.

And then there was the murder.

Jo Cox, a Labour MP and human rights campaigner, had been on the Remain flotilla. The following day, she was back in her seat in northern England, holding an electoral surgery, when a man stabbed and shot her, shouting “Britain first”. She did not survive, and became the first sitting British politician murdered since Spencer Perceval in 1812. The right-wing pro-Leave press moved swiftly to disavow any suggestion that the murder was in any way political, let alone connected to an interpretation of their side's arguments, trying to spin the killer as a random lunatic, as likely to have been motivated by, say, the ghost of Freddie Mercury talking to him through his toaster as anything else. That interpretation was not helped when he was found to have had connections with neo-Nazi groups (including Britain First, if a photograph of him at one of their events is authentic), nor when, in court, he gave his name as “Death To Traitors Freedom For Britain” (though Louise Mensch, that reliably south-pointing compass of the British Torysphere, did make a heroic attempt to claim his words as semantically meaningless gibberish, or in her words, “wibble wibble I'm a hatstand”).

By now, pretty much everyone has conceded that the murder was politically motivated, which leaves Leave with the bind of trying to dissociate themselves from extremists further up the continuum of xenophobic opinion from them; meanwhile, polls show that some voters have started deserting Leave (though not in droves; the two sides are now polling neck and neck). Perhaps they're asking themselves about some of the people they've discovered themselves sharing a side in the debate with.

It's three days until the referendum itself, and the result is still very much up in the air. Polling suggests that Leave still have the edge, while the betting markets predict a Remain victory. If Britain votes to leave the EU, it will, in my opinion, be a catastrophically bad decision for reasons too numerous to go into here. If Remain ekes out a narrow victory, though, the sense of relief will be tinged by the awareness that, were it not for the brutal murder of a fundamentally decent human being, our ancestral hatred of the Frogs and Krauts and fear of a brown-skinned Other would almost certainly have shifted it to Leave. And it does make one wonder what proportion of the 40%+ of the population expected to vote Leave would agree with Mr. Death To Traitors Freedom For Britain that Jo Cox, MP was, if not a traitor to Britain, part of an enemy elite hostile to the “silent majority”.

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