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.
Jo Cox is described as having been a rising star, one whose luminescence was still to fully come, and, according to one national magazine, maybe the greatest foreign secretary the UK will now never have. That a politician that good had flown under the radar seems to have shocked people.
The headlines and the claims of both sides have been washed away. The challenge that faces the UK is to rebuild trust in politics; to perhaps reflect on the life of one politician; and to see how we can all make politics better.
Whether in or out of the EU, the urgent and essential task is to rediscover a politics that serves all people.
The torrent of grief has helped us remember that politicians serve. Even when they campaign with ferocity, when they passionately make their cases, when they argue, when they stand up day after day to press their point, they serve.
But we have allowed ourselves to forget this. We see politicians as distant. We view them as vessels to heap our disenchantment on.
The commentators lamenting the destruction of political trust have become manifold. Writing for The Times this week, before Cox’s death, George Greenwood noted: “The problem post-referendum Britain will face will not be dealing with a recession, or fighting to prevent further powers being shipped off to the continent, but how British voters can ever trust the political system again.”
Politicians know they are seen as distant—the focus groups tell them so. But the focus groups also tell them what people will vote for.
Campaign strategies have increasingly become about massaging voters’ therapeutic self-interest, working out what will make them vote one way rather than the other, and then making the minimal viable pledges to activate those votes. It is machine politics that has worked well at successive elections, and so is relied on ever more so at the next.
Want people to vote for your side in the EU referendum? Tell them it will put more money in their pockets. Tell them their fears will be realized if the other side wins. I’m not usually given to cynicism; but as I look at the swell of the political seas after this particular riptide has hit, I’m convinced something has to change.
This is not to say we should stop disagreement. Different visions for what life should look like, and different ideas about how to best achieve it, are the heartbeat of politics. Disagreement over the EU is important; it is vital to debate these questions.
But when we do so in a way that perpetuates a distrust of politicians, and when politicians themselves appeal to the lowest possible denominator, we are not disagreeing. We are fermenting destructive division.
Church leaders in the UK are usually reticent to enter into political debate. It is almost unheard of for pastors to advise their congregations how to vote. Even the statements of leaders such as the Archbishop of Canterbury in the current debate are notable for their rarity.
The task of the church has usually been to encourage engagement, and to help people apply their beliefs to political decisions without directing those decisions.
As I speak to groups of evangelicals about the underlying values addressed by EU membership, I want them to be thoughtful in their political engagement. I want them to be coherent in their positions, and passionate about their convictions. I want them to be considerate in their disagreement, and certain about what matters most.
If there is any hope visible at this nadir, it is that better disagreement must be possible. Perhaps the glimmer of light is the hope that this could spark the rejuvenation of political life. As English theologian Thomas Fuller wrote in the 17th century: “It is always darkest just before the day dawneth.”
Crises shock us all. But they also demand a response, and the church must be able to respond to this particular crisis. We have politics that are defined by division—on both sides of the Atlantic—but we also have a Redeemer who reconciles.
If we do not act, we will be standing on the sidelines as politics tears itself apart. We must see politics as a place of service and mission. We must bring hope where there is strife. We must bring peace where there is discord. And we must bring life where there is death.
Whether in this referendum or in politics in the coming years, the task of the church is to be incarnate. Politicians of all stripes are sons and daughters of God. They are created in his image, and are given authority by the Creator of all things.
We must be present. It was what Jo Cox was doing when she was killed. She was present in her community; she was listening to those who elected her; she was serving on the front line. That’s a place of mission if ever I saw one.
The church should be a place of reconciliation and of healing. It should be a place where battling sides can come together, and where disagreement is not final.
And evangelical Christians should be the first to step up to serve in politics in a world that has never needed leadership as much as it does today.
Daniel Webster is advocacy and media manager at the UK Evangelical Alliance.