On Jo Cox, The EU Referendum And British Identity
Nat Jester picks through the mess that is the news and tries to understand the climate that resulted in the assassination of MP Jo Cox.
Britain has become an angry mess…
Yesterday, Jo Cox, the MP for Batley and Spen was murdered. She was shot and stabbed after holding an advice surgery, where MPs meet and help their constituents. She was a known advocate for refugees, chair of Labour Women’s Network, a former head of policy for Oxfam, and campaigner for Remain in the EU referendum. There are reports (though disputed) that Jo’s killer shouted ‘Britain First’ before shooting her.
I’m trying to be measured about this, but the truth is that I have spent part of this morning in tears. Britain has become an angry mess, with the hatred long felt by ethnic minorities, refugees and anyone that ‘looks’ Muslim, bubbling over into the public arena to an extent that no one can now ignore it. Understandably many people are asking: how has this happened? Unfortunately, I have a pretty good idea.
Britain seemed high on this feeling of togetherness.
I am a PhD researcher at the University of Bristol, examining representations of British state identity in the media. Whilst I examine the state (the administrative unit) in my work, I have always been fascinated by nations (a feeling, an ‘imagined community’ – Benedict Anderson’s wonderful book of the same name is well worth a read).
We have our own imagined community: Britain. We feel connected, through this Britishness, to other people we will never meet. In 2012 we had the London Olympics where Mo Farah was cemented as a British national treasure, and we cheered Jessica Ennis-Hill until we were hoarse. Britain seemed high on this feeling of togetherness.
What has become increasingly clear over the course of the EU referendum is that an alternative community has long been imagined by a sizeable number of people. It is a Britishness that is inward looking. It struggles to see black and minority ethnic people as British to the extent that they do not want to help refugees and, instead of seeing it as British to play a role in the largest trading bloc in the world, views the EU as a threat to identity.
It is a Britishness that is inward looking.
This idea was not created in a day, or even during this referendum campaign, but has been drip-fed over a very long period of time. Prof. Jutta Weldes’ concepts of articulation and interpellation are useful here. Articulation is the process by which ideas are linked together. When you think of ‘British’ what comes to mind? Probably tea-loving, polite people. When ideas such as ‘British’ are formed people are called to identify with them (a process called interpellation). If ‘British’ is being articulated as white and isolationist then people will be called to accept this identity, and some people have clearly done so.
Newspapers like the Daily Mail publish masses of anti-refugee, anti-European Union stories every day, even when there isn’t an election or referendum. When a group of people with a public platform and easy access to the nation’s living rooms says that ‘we’ are overrun, that ‘our’ country is full, that will shape people’s imagined community, and will have real-world effects. We should stop pretending otherwise.
It isn’t all doom and gloom, though. For better or worse, discourse is constantly changing. In the words of Brendan Cox, we must ‘unite to fight against the hatred that killed [Jo].’ If like me you’re despairing about the world, take Ailsa’s advice and practice some self-care and, as much as possible we must work to turn this discourse around. I want to be part of the imagined community that celebrates the fact that the mayor of London can be Muslim, that celebrates the massive contribution EU migrants make to our country, and that opens its heart to people who need help.
If you want to be part of that community, too, then say so. Tell your Facebook friends, tell your grumpy uncle, shout it from the rooftops. Together we can speak with one voice, change the discourse, and reclaim our country.
RIP Jo Cox.
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