THE words could not be more poignant, profound or pertinent as Britain goes to the polls to determine this country’s fate in the European Union a week after the selfless and defenceless Yorkshire MP Jo Cox was killed in the line of duty.
“We all take for granted and don’t realise what we have until it is gone,” said the anonymous, handwritten message attached to a spray of pink carnations carefully placed under the statue of theologian Joseph Priestley in Birstall’s town square. “Thank you for Jo for all you have done for us. XXX.”
A sincere message written in response to a barbaric act of evil, its theme has wider resonance ahead of today’s historic vote – particularly when so many people remain indifferent, either because of disillusionment or ignorance, to the importance of walking to a polling station, picking up a pencil and putting a single ‘X’ in the box of their choice.
Generations gave their lives in two world wars to preserve this country’s liberty from tyranny, while it is only a century since the suffragettes won the campaign for women to be given the vote, values that Jo Cox was striving to uphold when she was cruelly snatched from us just 13 months after being elected to Parliament.
Yes, the Batley & Spen MP was an articulate advocate for the Remain campaign – her essay for this newspaper, six days before her death, on the positive benefits of immigration stands testament to her kinship – but she was also a democrat, passionate about civic duty and the enduring importance of public participation in elections.
Just the act of voting will be a mark of respect and gratitude for a politician, and mother-of-two, whose values were shaped by her humble upbringing in Batley.
For many, particularly those living in the Spen valley’s towns and communities hardest hit by this unspeakable tragedy, they will do so with the heaviest of hearts.
In Birstall earlier this week, I could detect little enthusiasm for today’s vote – even though both Remain and Leave posters tactlessly, and insensitively, adorned the solitary lamp post outside the library where the 41-year-old was shot and stabbed to death.
This is a community still in torment. Two police officers were keeping a respectful distance while a CNN reporter broadcast for America breakfast television as a steady trickle of mourners came to pay their respects and add their tributes to the carpet of flowers.
One lady sobbed tears of sorrow. It was still too raw, a point made forcefully on this card: “One question WHY Rest in peace Jo xxx”. The sentiment was shared by all.
Others shook their head at the futility of their MP’s death as the St George’s flag above the town centre remained at half-mast. “The world is as poorer and darker place for your passing. RIP Jo. You were such a star,” said one card of condolence.
Another was just as heartfelt – “Nothing is so precious as the memory that lives on” – while one testimony epitomised the national and international response to this tragedy: “I don’t know you but I know I would have liked you. The world is an unjust place and I know you will be remembered for trying to make it a better place.”
Simple words – but totally synonymous with the overwhelming outpouring of grief after Jo Cox became the first MP to be killed since Ian Gow was assassinated by IRA terrorists in 1990.
It is a sentiment shared by all those who have added bouquets to Birkstall’s sea of flowers. It chimes with all those who donated more than £1m in 72 hours to a special fund set up to support three charities emblematic of different aspects of the MP’s acclaimed work in Yorkshire and in the overseas aid sector where she fought tirelessly on behalf of refugees and gave voice to the voiceless. As David Cameron said: “Quite simply, there are people on our planet today who are only here and alive because of Jo.”
It resonates with the collective solidarity shown by Parliament on Monday when they remembered an irreplaceable colleague – white and red roses placed on the seat usually occupied by the Honourable Member for Batley & Spen, whose speeches were fearless.
It strikes a chord with the refugee camp in Syria which has been renamed in memory of Jo Cox and it embodies the spirit of all those who took part in commemorative events yesterday – what would have been the MP’s 42nd birthday – as part of the #MoreInCommon campaign, the legacy of an uplifting, and unforgettable, maiden speech to the House of Commons in May last year on the cherished theme of unity.
Time will tell whether politics becomes more respectful after an unedifying referendum campaign which, at times, would not have looked out of place in America where Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are slugging it out for the White House.
This was reflected by the typically thoughtful words of the MP’s widower Brendan Cox who believe that his wife – a consensual politician who approached every challenge “with love” – was, in fact, killed because of the views she held.
“I think she was very worried that the language was coarsening, that people were being driven to take more extreme positions, that people didn’t work with each other as individuals and on issues, it was all much too tribal and unthinking,” he said with characteristic dignity.
“And she was particularly worried – we talked about this regularly – particularly worried about the direction of politics, particularly around creating division and playing on people’s worst fears rather than their best instincts.”
Monday morning’s campaigning was indicative of this. Pleas for a more respectful and less grubby tone had clearly not reached Ukip leader Nigel Farage who remained unrepentant about a “Breaking Point” poster depicting a snake-like queue of refugees before accusing a “scared witless” Prime Minister of conflating the actions of “one crazed individual with the motives of half of Britain” who appear to want tighter border controls and nothing else.
Is this what politics has become following both Project Fear and Project Hate? I sincerely hope not, though it does – in an undignified way – reach out to those who do not believe that globalisation, and the European Union in particular, has worked for them. MPs of all parties need to reflect on this, failure to do so will only create an even bigger vacuum for extremists to exploit.
Nevertheless, there are those who believe this referendum is a triumph for democracy because of the level of public engagement – indeed the number of new contributors to The Yorkshire Post’s letters page reflects this – on a totemic issue about Britain and the country’s future sovereignty.
Equally there are those who despair at the intolerance of their main protagonists – Tuesday’s ugly BBC debate offered proof of this trend – and other disturbing aspects of contemporary politics.
Two examples are the racial slurs levelled against Sadiq Khan, the new Mayor of London, and Dominic Peacock, the crass East Riding councillor, mocking the £1m raised in memory of Jo Cox.
The bitterness of the referendum campaign has certainly not been a good advertisement for politics, and the resulting divisions will not be reconciled overnight because this battle became so unseemly. It’s hardly going to entice other publicly-spirited souls to serve their community or country in future if this is their reward.
How individuals vote is a matter for their own conscience, I just hope that individuals do so in overwhelming numbers to provide legitimacy to the result, the country’s political elite respect the outcome and then coalesce around the verdict without too much rancour or recrimination.
A week after the brutal death of Jo Cox plunged the whole country into the depths of despair, it is the least that the country can do after this selfless daughter, sister, mother, wife, campaigner, politician, humanitarian and beacon of hope paid for her public service, and democratic values, with her life.
If not, Britain – and democracy – will be even poorer after a desperate week like no other.