The other day my brother, long resident in LA, and openly and relaxedly gay, emailed me in deep sadness about the Orlando massacre, asking 'Has the world gone mad?'
By coincidence, the same day an American friend long resident in London wrote to me very troubled by an email he'd had out of blue from an old friend in the US, a liberal in the 60s, now spitting venom at Muslims, at Londoners for allowing a Muslim Mayor, and at Obama for allowing Muslims into the States.
And finally, the same day I was myself struggling with news of the assassination of Jo Cox MP by a British nationalist, bringing the campaign to prevent Britain exiting the EU to a halt. During that pause, I learned for the first time what sort of person Jo Cox had been, and I realised her assassination had brought things to a head for me. This what I replied to my brother.
No, not the whole world gone mad, but certainly something loosed that we thought was safely chained, and now walks the Earth freely.
I don't know if you saw this news yesterday: Jo Cox MP, a wonderful young woman, 2 young children, Cambridge educated but Yorkshire though and through, liked by everyone of every party, her funny, passionate and charming maiden speech was about how immigration has enriched Yorkshire ('more unites us than divides us'), her CV a list of every good cause, Oxfam, the Gates Foundation, Labour for Europe, was hacked and gunned to death yesterday as she did her constituency work in a small Yorkshire market town by a white man shouting 'Britain first' (the name of a far-right nationalist party).
These past 2 months, campaigning to stay in the EU, I've seen on the Leave side an unpleasant, unthinkingly reactionary, xenophobic aspect of English society that I always knew about but managed to ignore, because it seemed more or less under control, and never quite made it to mainstream politics. I've had to admit that it is now running loose, has been legitimised by Brexiting politicians, looks like winning the referendum and taking over, becoming the government, dominating the tone of public life.
Indeed, what Brexit would change most fundamentally is not our relationship with Europe, but Britain itself: our idea of who we are, our values, the way we treat each other. Jo Cox's murder was foretaste of that. The Right, wracked with guilt, naturally prefer the narrative that he was just mentally ill: just happened to be a far-right Nationalist gunning down a pro-Europe campaigner in the middle of a heated Brexit campaign characterised by sexualised racial slurs and monstrous lies. But no mistake about it, there's a straight line between the Leave politicians who talked of a million Turks coming here, of mass sexual attacks by immigrants on British women, immigrants being seen by the doctor ahead of you, immigrants stealing your country - yes, they really said these things - and the finger of a Nationalist fanatic on that trigger. Racial hate has been made respectable and main-streamed. Pour enough lies and hate into the public's minds and some of them will become unhinged.
I've stood on a doorstep in Oxford where a French woman, living here 7 years, married to a German, both working hard and contributing to our society, son born here - utterly at home here - says she cant sleep for worry about whether they can stay, and fearing that after Brexit, her neighbours and workmates will look at her sideways, wanting her and her family out. I felt ashamed to be British.
This campaign has been gradually changing me. Jo's murder brings it all to a head. She represented the very best in us: Farage, Gove and Johnson, the very worst.
I have had a comfortable and fulfilling retirement here in Oxford, a protected, civilised place, where the worries of the world were distant thunder, not really touching my life directly. The local community causes I took up were to do with our pursuits and pleasures; and my book, an academic analysis of the public good. It's clear to me now that that is not enough.
Our generation thought we had a free pass on the really scary issues. In the world we grew up in, fascism had been decisively beaten by the good guys, this side of the Iron Curtain we were all pals now and it was a world of plenty and peace. In the end, even communist dictatorships fell, or seemed to. What was there left to do but amuse ourselves, while voting the right way of course, worrying in a fairly comfortable way about the distant threat of global warming (while not giving up of frequent flights abroad ) and occasionally giving to good causes?
Now it seems that we are to be put to the test after all. The same demons that terrified our parents and grandparents in the 1930s are loose again, carefully cultivated and nourished as always by the Right: above all, fear and hate of The Other; unrestrained violence and oppression; outrageous greed and selfishness; facilitated by professionally crafted lies, by ignorance, by lack of imagination and by sheer weariness. The old battle is to be fought all over again, and it's right here, right now, in our own street. Not just in Orlando, and in Paris, but here in Oxford.
We all have a choice now, that can't be flunked.
I've made mine. I'm done with civilised detachment of the retired professional and done with just lamenting each new atrocity and done with trying to tune it all out. I'll fight, as best I can. I've been fighting in this campaign, which I now see as being for the heart and soul of Britain. And if we lose the vote, I'll know I need to fight harder. And I know that our children will fight after us. Because the alternative is to sink into despair and cycnism, which is dishonourable. And because our parents and grandparents showed us that, united and determined, we can win.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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