The killing of Jo Cox

Jo Shaw holds the Salvesen Chair of European Institutions at the University of Edinburgh, and is Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. These words were written in a personal capacity and do not reflect the views of the University of Edinburgh or the Dangerous Women Project.

None of us yet know what ‘caused’ Thomas Mair allegedly to murder Jo Cox MP on 16 June 2016. Aside from the hands that held the gun and the knife, and the mind which appears to have been poisoned by far right hate, there are a number of factors which contextualise the murder that are specific to British politics at the present (well, many of them probably apply in lots of other places, but for these purposes it is British politics that matter). The murder may or may not have been connected to any or all of the following factors:

  • The killing took place exactly a week before the end of a referendum campaign on UK membership of the European Union which has been notable for its lack of civility and which has been noisily dominated by negative campaigning.
  • A number of politicians have taken steps to turn immigration and in particular fear of immigration into one of the central issues in the campaign.
  • We can only speculate about the impact on a person who may have been experiencing mental health issues of involvement with far right politics and of the rhetoric of groups such as Britain First which have threatened to target Muslims who hold elected office in the UK.
  • We have seen an atmosphere of hostility towards elected representatives, often including generalised accusations of dishonesty, which has seen women representatives often facing much more unpleasant forms of (online and ‘real life’) threats, abuse and harassment than their male counterparts, many of which are explicitly sexist and misogynistic in nature (e.g. threats of rape, or sexualized name-calling).

In fact, the quite astonishing rise of online misogyny, charted by organisations such as The Guardian, was one of the major motivating factors for the establishment of the Dangerous Women Project. And since the murder we have learned that Jo Cox did have cause to complain to police about harassment and that another man – not the alleged killer – accepted a caution in respect of his conduct. It seems now more urgent than ever to challenge this trend.

I didn’t know Jo Cox, but I know or have known a lot of women like her. In many respects she was a powerful woman. In a racialised environment, she had the advantage of being a white woman challenging an anti-immigration culture. She was an ordinary woman, and also an extraordinary one. She seems to have been universally respected, admired and liked in UK politics and beyond and she had used her ‘voice’ as a Member of Parliament not only to speak out on matters which were important to her constituents, but also to give support to many causes to which she was committed, in particular as a result of her earlier experience working in international development. Inevitably almost all of the commentary on her has concentrated on these sorts of questions, and quite right too. But one piece stands out as going below the surface to consider what it must be like to ‘be a Jo Cox’ in patriarchy today.

A few of us even self-identify as girly swots – not to be confused with head girls, completely different tribe – who have a winning ticket what with being white and being/becoming and middle class, but we’re also women in patriarchy, with all that brings (punished for being pushy, points stolen at meetings, bit of online misogyny, all that stupid stuff). We see a lot that needs changing, but are socialised into people-pleasing. We do jobs in nonprofits and the civil service. We sit on school boards or Church committees. A tiny number go into electoral politics. Most of us are the support staff. We come into our own in our thirties and forties, and accept with good grace that we won’t go all that far. We politely budge up on the small bench set aside for all the others who were locked out, thinking it sad but correct that we don’t get a special moment in sun. We work towards doggedly incremental social democratic goals.’

Cox was, to adopt the trope of this project, a ‘dangerous woman’, and as such probably had to take more than her fair share of elbows in the ribs when she stuck out too far. Some of that seems to have come during her studies at the University of Cambridge – an experience she apparently did not enjoy. I know from personal experience what she meant which she referred to the fact that ‘where you were born mattered’, having arrived at Cambridge from northern grammar school in the late 1970s myself, although I must confess I did enjoy the experience after about the first month. She came back stronger, as has become well known in these last few distressing days, before her life was snuffed out far too early.

For all of us in the UK, this has been a shocking week. It has been hard to see how any good could come of this, although the dignified response of Jo Cox’s family (and indeed on the part of the British body politic more generally), including the creation of a fundraising page to raise funds for causes dear to her heart, has been quite astonishing. There have been many calls to bring more civility into political campaigning and political discourse as a result. We shall see.

This was a ‘political’ killing, perhaps in many senses, but certainly in the sense that the Thomas Mair gave his name at his first court appearance as ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’ and is said to have identified himself to police as a ‘political activist’. It seems not to have been a random killing (Mair had apparently collected material about Jo Cox in his house and she was ‘his’ MP). Mair also seems to have been what is euphemistically called a ‘loner’, which usually means a person who has difficulties forming the types of close loving relationships with women and/or men that help to keep us anchored in the real, so that we can disagree with each other on fundamental issues without resorting to violence. But it was above all a killing that silenced an important voice, a woman’s voice. In that sense, it is a gendered killing, given how hard it often is for women to get their voices heard (not least in this EU referendum campaign). It is true that women are less commonly the victims of political killing than men, but it does happen. As one commentator put it:

It was also an attack by a man on a woman. We shouldn’t ignore that. It’s not an original observation to say that murder is almost always committed by men. And neither is it a new discovery that far-right hate is bound up with misogyny. Many fascist men hate nothing more than strong left-wing women.

Or to put it another way: ‘the murder of a female politician, with strong views, by a man who wanted to silence her. An act of terror in the realest sense.’ With a marked increase of online hate and harassment and with a high profile politician signalling what seems to be his acknowledgement that violence may follow if the anti-immigration voice is not heeded, perhaps it was only a matter of time before something like this happened.

One tweet on the day of the murder captured the point perfectly:

Beth Murray tweet

Female MPs get daily death and rape threats: “It’s just online, why can’t you ignore it?”. Female MP is murdered: “An unexpected tragedy.”




An overused word. But – on this occasion – quite right. A tragedy.

Jo Cox MP (1974-2016)