I have been involved in British politics for more than a decade. Suddenly, everything has changed.
One week before the United Kingdom votes whether to continue its membership in the European Union (EU), Jo Cox, a Labour member of Parliament (MP) representing a constituency in Northern England, died after being stabbed and shot in the street in Birstall, West Yorkshire.
I’ve worked in parliament, been a lobbyist, and now help evangelical Christians engage in politics. I’ve never known anything like these past few months as the UK prepares to vote in the EU referendum, popularly called “Brexit.”
The wrangling of recent weeks pales into insignificance in the wake of the death of a public servant who was doing what MPs regularly do: meeting with constituents to hear their concerns. These one-on-one meetings, which take place up and down the country in offices, town halls, and local libraries, are the front line of politics.
Political systems where a single person represents a constituency foster this sort of connection. But alongside the value, it brings incredible vulnerability.
Michael Deacon, paid to write political sketches for the Daily Telegraph, gave one of the most poignant tributes: “We aren’t ruled by a cabal of the evil, greedy, and callous. We’re served by human beings who make mistakes, and get no end of grief even when they don’t.”
Cox’s husband, Brendan, found the words—I do not know how—in the immediate aftermath to sum up her life: “Jo believed in a better world, and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy and a zest for life that would exhaust most people.”
The campaigns to either leave or remain in the EU had reached fever pitch in recent days. The claims from rival camps had ramped up to the most divisive, distorted, destructive levels.
It went from the bitter to the bizarre. MPs were backstabbing colleagues they usually sided with because they backed different sides of this particular vote. A former prime minister described members of his own party as “hungry pythons.” We’ve even had rival flotillas on the Thames River.
Claims of the costs of staying and the consequences of leaving have bounced from billboard to campaign bus. It was the most toxic political environment I have ever encountered.
Sadly, this seems a common theme in contemporary politics. It resembles the heated political campaign in the United States, where two polarizing candidates with historically low favorability ratings are battling for president.
This final weekend before the critical Brexit vote, I am speaking at a church about the EU referendum and how Christians should engage in it. It is a crucial vote, and evangelicals in good conscience find themselves on both sides of the debate. My role is not to tell people how to vote, but to help Christians think through a few key themes and look beyond the headlines and superficial slogans that have dominated the campaigns.
Ahead of the UK’s general election last year, prime minister David Cameron pledged that the people would get a say on whether we stayed in the EU. With polls putting the vote on a knife’s edge, both campaigns became more strident in their tone, more passionate in their conviction, and more extreme in the predictions of what would come to pass if the other side won.
And yet these claims today seem as valuable as dust, swept away in the vacuum left in British politics by the death of a woman not particularly known beyond her constituency, her colleagues, or her sector.