Commentary: Two defining moments in the Brexit campaign

A union flag is left in tribute to Labour Member of Parliament Jo Cox in Birstal near Leeds, Britain June 17, 2016 REUTERS/Craig Brough

British authorities suspended Brexit campaigning after the shocking murder of smart, popular Labour Party parliamentarian Jo Cox on Thursday. That was a good idea. But unlike the vast ramifications of Sunday’s mass shooting in an Orlando, Florida, nightclub, Cox’s death was so senseless, so much apparently the product of a temporary derangement that it is unlikely to affect the outcome of next week’s vote on whether the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union.

It does seem, as several witnesses reported to the police, that the suspect shouted an anti-EU “Britain First!” slogan several times as he killed -- and Cox was indeed an enthusiastic campaigner for Remain supporters. But to argue that this murder is the product of the Brexit campaign is too far-fetched, too distasteful, that even GOP presumptive nominee Donald Trump would likely shy away.

In Britain, virtually everyone involved with politics united in sympathy and affection for Cox. Until this tragedy, the only time they had shown common cause had been in invoking World War Two — Britain’s “finest hour” — as a backdrop. Former London Mayor Boris Johnson, a leader of the Brexiteers and an admitted aspirant to displace Prime Minister David Cameron, cited Adolf Hitler’s attempt to unify Europe as a guide to the dangers of EU ambitions to follow suit. Cameron warned of the possibility of a Europe again plunging into war: "Can we be so sure peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking?”

For me as a Brit, one of the defining moments of the campaign — before Cox’s murder — was watching President Barack Obama’s excoriation of Trump and parallel invocation of American values. It was impossible to do so without a surge of jealousy. The record of both Britain’s Vote Leave and Remain camps has been a dismal one of charge and countercharge: dire warnings of continuing to be attached to a stagnating continent or of losing privileged access to the country’s largest export market.

We in the United Kingdom cannot muster a ringing declaration of European values to rival Obama’s. Indeed, it is a minor theme in continental Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel did manage it in seeking to convince her country at the end of last year to receive a million refugees. She called up contemporary German ideals  -- “self-confident and free, humanitarian and open to the world” – in so doing. But the attacks on women in Cologne on the night of New Year’s Eve, mainly by young, often drunk migrants, gave her many critics a fulcrum for a counterattack, and a tightening of border controls.

Cameron, with his temporary pro-union allies in the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Scottish National parties, has been taken by surprise at the surge of rejection of EU membership, presently giving the Brexit side a 3 percentage point to 7 percentage point lead in the polls. Stupid or not, it isn’t the economy that is driving this. Economists, global financial institutions and business leaders believe almost unanimously that leaving the EU would range from dumb to disastrous. The outcome could extend beyond the UK’s borders, too -- especially if investors believed the decision could break up the EU. Any such decision in the world’s leading financial center and fifth-largest economy (by nominal gross domestic product) would be disturbing, especially for a fragile Europe with growing nationalist parties devoutly wishing for the UK to set an example of defiance.

About the Author

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Senior Research Fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics. He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.