The memorial site for Jo Cox MP at Parliament Square, Westminster, June 2016. Photo: Flickr/ Garry White The memorial site for Jo Cox MP at Parliament Square, Westminster, June 2016. Photo: Flickr/ Garry White

Kevin Ovenden considers the aftermath of the brutal assassination that rocked domestic politics and identifies currents the mainstream is anxious to ignore 

It is three months to the day since the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in her constituency of Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire.

The man accused of her murder, Thomas Mair, is to enter a plea at the Old Bailey Central Criminal Court in London in three weeks’ time. At his appearance before Westminster Magistrates Court two days following the murder he gave his name, twice, as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.

He was reported at the time to have shouted at the scene of the killing: “Britain First!” or possibly “Put Britain first!” and to be armed with a knife and an old or improvised firearm.

And over the weekend of his arrest and charging – the last one before the EU referendum vote in Britain – some of the media reported that the police had discovered connections between Mair and the fascist right going back more than a decade and a half. That was, they said, a first line of enquiry. They were also looking into his “mental health”.

The rules governing criminal cases to be heard before a jury in Britain impose strict limits on what the media can say after charges have been laid and before the outcome of a trial.

But it is extraordinary that on this three month commemoration of the killing of a Labour MP there is not a mention of it that I can see in the British media. While matters that might prejudice the trial may not be discussed, there are many general issues which do not fall foul of the sub judice rules and which should be.

The right wing tabloid reaction at the time of Jo Cox’s killing was in keeping with their attempts to deal with other atrocities, such as the murder of 77 people, most of them youth members of the Norwegian Labour Party, by Anders Breivik five years ago.


The common terms in much of the coverage then were “lone wolf”, “mental health” and “mad”. They easily rested upon the widespread stigmatisation of mental illness. The truth is that people actually suffering mental distress are much more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators.

While becoming and remaining a violent racist or a fascist necessitates, I suggest, an unhealthy personality and mental state, it is not true that fascism or violent racism are simply mental illnesses.

Breivik wrote a manifesto in which he referenced the writings of all sorts of right wing, anti-Muslim public figures in Europe. They included a British tabloid journalist.

As deranged as Islamophobia and racism are – from a truly rational standpoint – his citing of their opinions to support his own was not devoid of reason. It deployed steps of argumentation which were in themselves formally rational. The defence of those who create a general climate of racism is that they cannot be held responsible for the actions of others who turn to violence.

A certain liberal understanding of how society works inadvertently falls into accepting that line. It sees two problems. The first, a nebulous intolerance; the second, a propensity among the least educated and perhaps the “mentally ill” to act out what others of us can dispel through “reason” and argument.

Thus the liberal position in the face of fascist and hardened racist organisation: we need to defeat them with the power of argument, at the same time as we should fear the great unwashed who are too stupid to see reason.

What is left out is any investigation of the processes in society or of the actors – more or less political and coherent – which can lead to obtaining weapons to kill 69 young members of the Norwegian Labour Party in the name of fighting against a religion, Islam, which they did not practice.

Not just who, but what killed Jo Cox? The chance and tragic intersection of “inflammatory rhetoric” triggering a “mental health condition”? Or is the answer more tangible?


We will have to await what emerges in the trial. But in the last three months there has been little sign that relevant questions are being asked in Britain of the police investigation or of the whole process. There is actually little trace in public life at all that an MP of the labour movement was murdered just three months ago – notwithstanding some grubby speculation about the by-election it will mean next month.

Within the limits of what the media can discuss, it is still permissible to ask: How have the police pursued what was a primary line of inquiry: the reported far right connections of Thomas Mair? Is the far right organisation which is actually called “Britain First” being investigated? Where has that led to?

If we are to “learn lessons” from this tragedy, is the investigation leading to where those lessons might be learned? What is the scope of the investigation and what will be tried? Is it only to determine that Jo Cox was stabbed and shot to death, who did it and the state of mind of the killer?

Though Thomas Mair told magistrates he was a “political activist”, this will be a criminal not a political trial. That said, it is a political question to decide the scope of the investigation and of the murder trial itself.

Are the anti-racist, anti-fascist and labour movements in Britain content to leave that political decision about the extent of this investigation and trial to the agencies of the British state? Or are we to ask questions and suggest lines of investigation ourselves?

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.