Advertisement
News

Jo Cox Was the Ideal of a Public Servant

The Labour MP fought hate and injustice for her whole life. Here, the people who knew her call on others to continue that fight.

by Oscar Rickett
Jun 17 2016, 2:20pm

Nigel Roddis / PA

There are people who seek power to pursue their own ends. There are people who use power in service of a higher ideal, whose personal and moral convictions are evident in the work they do and the change they achieve. Listening and speaking to those who knew Jo Cox, the Labour MP murdered yesterday, a picture has emerged of an internationalist humanitarian who was struck by a calling to improve the conditions of some of the world's most vulnerable people. Far from being the caricature of a self-interested politician, she seems to have been the ideal of a public servant.

Jo Cox was elected MP for her home constituency of Batley and Spen, in West Yorkshire, in 2015, the start of this Parliament. Prior to this, she was a high-flyer in the NGO world, working for Oxfam, Save the Children and the NSPCC, among others. She was known as a committed advocate for the rights and protection of refugees and was a prominent campaigner for Britain to remain in the European Union. She died in the heart of her constituency, shot and stabbed following a meeting with her constituents in Birstall.

A 52-year-old man, Thomas Mair, has been arrested. It is believed that Mair has long-term links to a far-right group whose main aim was the defense of the apartheid regime in South Africa, and which has been campaigning for Britain to leave the European Union. Last night, British fascist groups like Notts Casual Infidels reveled in Cox's murder.

Speaking to me from his home in the US, Jo Cox's old friend and former Oxfam colleague Martin Kirk said that Cox spent her life "fighting for social justice, making the world a better place: it was unquestioning that these things were what life was for... I know people always say this about people when they've passed, but she genuinely was loved as a person... her personal authenticity rang so true." I also spoke with Max Lawson, who worked closely with Cox at Oxfam, and recalled an "inspiring leader" who brought the best out of everyone around her, always believed they could win and was "passionate for change."

Cox and her husband Brendan were staunch Labour campaigners whose relationship began while they were both working at Oxfam. Martin remembered the "intimate" wedding of Jo and Brendan in a small country church, as well as trips to climb the Munros—mountains in Scotland that are over 10,000 feet high.

"They had a big map on their wall and their aim was to climb every single Munro. They spent years doing it; it was a huge thing for them. The first time I went up there, I took a suitcase as if I was going for a nice weekend away. They couldn't believe it, and I had to drag this thing up a rain-soaked mountain! Brendan, particularly, loves the hardcore outdoor thing, but the two of them, that was their passion."

The couple lived in a houseboat on the Thames and Jo talked about taking a speedboat to work in Westminster. This "spirit of non-conformity" was something that Cox mentioned in her maiden speech in the House of Commons as being a key characteristic of the West Yorkshire constituency she represented. It was, she said, something she intended on maintaining. Even when she co-authored a seemingly critical letter to the Guardian calling for more leadership from Jeremy Corbyn in the wake of this year's council elections, she bucked the usual trend: this was not an unnamed Labour source looking to incite a leadership coup, this was not some condescending figure of the establishment taking his usual pop at the Labour leader, this was a genuinely committed MP asking, in a totally non-Machiavellian way, for more.

Cox's maiden speech also makes reference to how the communities she had been elected to represent had been "deeply enhanced by immigration." "We are far more united, and have far more common, than that which divides us," she said of the different ethnic communities in the area. A fierce campaigner on behalf of the Syrian people, she highlighted the murderous horror of the Assad regime and Russia's support for that regime time and again. "Why can we not now join forces with our European allies to get food to starving people," the MP asked an unresponsive House of Commons, as she called for an end to the government's "shameful refusal to give 3,000 unaccompanied children sanction in the UK."

It may still turn out that Jo Cox's commitment to a group of people demonized by a section of British society had little to do with why she was killed. Still, in a week in which England football fans have been filmed throwing coins at child refugees in France and on the day in which Nigel Farage stood in front of billboards showing lines of non-white refugees in a seemingly fascist attempt to stir up the hatreds of the nation, it is shocking enough that a British public servant who stood up for the world's most marginalized people has been killed in cold blood.

"This horrific attack," says Martin Kirk, "seemed so full of rage. Shooting and stabbing and then kicking: It was a portrait of utter, blind rage. Jo was little. She was a little woman. The image of a large, full-grown man bearing down on her is unconscionable."

"If anything of her attitude can infect politics, can infect conversations about the referendum, then that is a good thing."

Right now, we only have to look to Russia, to mainland Europe, to the United States, and to Britain to see fascists of various shapes and sizes picking up on this anger and enflaming it and letting it loose in truly horrifying ways. Speaking at a rally in the days leading up to the war in Iraq, the late socialist Tony Benn called for, "anger at injustice, optimism for a better world."

At this moment, it can seem hard to locate that optimism. Tributes for Jo Cox have flooded in from across the political spectrum. Everyone from Jeremy Corbyn to David Cameron, Sadiq Khan to Theresa May, has spoken of her in glowing terms.

I asked Kirk if any hope could be found at a time like this. "If anything of Jo's core beliefs get amplified," he said, "that is a fitting tribute to her. Compassion, empathy for people of all stripes wherever they are in trouble, just a complete humanitarian view of the world, such strong values, work with rather than fight against, if anything of that attitude can infect politics, can infect conversations about the referendum, then that is a good thing."

Kirk's words echo those of Jo Cox's husband Brendan, who said in a statement that his wife would have wanted two things "above all else now: one, that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn't have a creed, race, or religion: It is poisonous." That fight against hatred goes on, but it will be harder without the compassion and leadership of Jo Cox.