An awful moment in British politics, and it could get worse

Yesterday I spent most of the day helping my local Liberal Democrats in the Tooting by-election. Alas there was little to show for it as the two main parties steamrollered all the others; we hope to have built something for the future.

But that, of course, is not what prompted the title of this article, though it hardly helped. During the day a British Labour MP, Jo Cox, was shot and killed by one of her constituents while she was holding a surgery. This comes on top of week where English football fans exhibited shocking, loutish behaviour at the European Championships in France, and in the EU referendum, the Leave campaign took a firm lead in the opinion polls, as it sank to new lows in ad hominem attacks and the raising of irrelevant fears. This included a poster showing refugees modelled on one devised by Goebbels in Nazi Germany.

I did not know Ms Cox. Her murder has shocked the political establishment, and she has drawn eulogies from across the political spectrum. Her attacker seems to have taken exception to her internationalist outlook, be it support for the Remain campaign or helping refugees from Syria and elsewhere.

I, and many of my friends, are linking these depressing events. The Leave campaign is riding on the crest of a public backlash, especially by older, less-educated English white males , against the political establishment. Immigration and Muslims are their subjects of choice. Political correctness is condemned. As this movement gathers momentum, people feel free to indulge in all manner of rudeness in the cause of “putting Britain first”, by which they usually mean England. This is a far cry from murder, maybe, and I’m sure that Leave campaigners are as shocked as anybody else, but the fire they are playing with reduces the psychological barriers to violence.

And it is leading nowhere good. A Leave result next week will provoke political chaos – and perhaps economic chaos too, according to the FT’s usually sober Martin Wolf. The paradox is that the aggressive anti-world, anti-establishment campaigning of the Outers leaves the country ill-equipped to deal with the consequences. While some Leave campaigners hope for a confident Britain making its way in a world without its horizons limited by the EU, it is not this which is giving their campaign traction. The country will enter one of the most politically and economically challenging periods of its recent history virtually leaderless, and with little sign of where any coherent leadership will come from.

And the world is not nice place at the moment. The week started with the shocking massacre in Orlando. Xenophobia is rising in the rest of Europe. The peoples of the Middle East are helplessly mired in conflict. And that is to say nothing of the self-indulgent nationalism of Russia and China who feel take no responsibility for making the world a better place except for their own ruling elites..

Still I hope that enough British Leave supporters will draw back at the last moment, after gaining a sense of the abyss into which they may push our country, and stay at home or perhaps event vote the other way. It is but a faint hope; deep down I think things are going to get worse. And the consequences of even a narrow remain victory look difficult.

At times like this my habit of political optimism is very hard to sustain. And yet we must keep trying for better.