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Britain's Jo Cox tragedy brings moment of unity to divisive politics

A Member of Parliament was murdered Thursday after holding a meeting with constituents, bringing the divisive EU referendum campaign to an abrupt halt as both sides condemned the violence.

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    Batley and Spen Member of Parliament Jo Cox is seen in Westminster, England on May 12, 2015. Ms. Cox was attacked and killed while meeting with constituents this week.
    Yui Mok/Press Association/Reuters/File
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Britain stood united in grief this week, mourning the loss of Member of Parliament Jo Cox, who was killed Thursday in a frenzied attack by a knife- and gun-wielding man with suspected neo-Nazi ties. Ms. Cox was shot and stabbed after speaking with residents in a quiet town of her constituency in northern England.

The events mark the first time in more than a quarter of a century that a British MP has been murdered, and comes at a time when politics in Britain have become bitter and divisive, intensified by the fiery rhetoric of the referendum campaign surrounding the country's future relationship with the European Union.

Many observers also point to the low regard with which politicians in Britain have come to be viewed, seeing in this abhorrent act an extreme manifestation of a disturbing trend. They suggest that after the mourning, and the celebration of a life dedicated to serving others, there could be a time for soul-searching, of understanding how this could have happened in a country so unaccustomed to such violence.

The public outpouring already expressed has come in such a way that, by all accounts, Ms. Cox herself would have lauded: putting aside political differences and suspending the campaigning to express outrage and dismay at a violent act of hatred and intolerance. 

"There is no doubt that the death of a Member of Parliament in such shocking circumstances, in addition to the dreadful impact on family and friends, has produced an entirely cross-party response," Tony Travers, a professor of political science at the London School of Economics, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a telephone interview, "partly because all parliamentarians, not only in Britain, share to some degree a sense of common purpose."

Tributes have poured in from all parts of the political spectrum, with Prime Minister David Cameron uniting with the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, to speak together on Friday in Cox's West Yorkshire constituency. Mr. Corbyn, who leads the party of which Cox was a representative, described her death as "an attack on democracy."

Statements of support and solidarity have crossed the Atlantic, too. "The assassination of MP Jo Cox at the hands of a man driven by hatred is a manifestation of a coarseness in our politics that must stop," tweeted former House representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who survived an attack when she was meeting her own constituents in Tucson in 2011. 

Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, described it as a violent act of "political intolerance."

"A lack of violence, and acceptance of different opinions are integral to what makes functioning democracies work," Dr. Travers tells the Monitor. "There is a profound sense of shock, mingled with an inquiry in the minds of some of the political class: Has the tone of political discourse in general contributed in some way?"

Certainly, the referendum campaign, due to culminate in a vote next Thursday, has intensified political divisions. But for now, at least, that has evaporated. In fact, when the campaigns do inevitably resume, it would be surprising if they fail to do so with more "decorum" and less rancor, Travers says. 

But there is another ugly truth that that has been exposed by this tragedy: the general contempt with which politicians are regarded, and the overwhelmingly unflattering brush with which they are all tarred.

"In the political culture in the UK, there's too little defense of politics and politicians," Ralph Scott of Demos, a cross-party British think tank, tells the Monitor in a phone interview. "The [referendum] campaign has been divisive and has intensified anti-politics feelings, and a sentiment that trust in politicians in general has dissipated."

In January, a study supported by Parliament and the Home Office, and conducted by seven psychiatrists, found that 4 out of 5 British MPs have been subjected to intrusive or aggressive behavior. Half of those politicians had been targeted in their own homes.

While the roots of such behavior may lie in the traditional British skepticism of authority, that attitude has mutated into "something darker, something nastier," as the Economist's Bagehot column on British politics describes it, transformed and twisted by the expenses scandal of 2009, when a "handful" of MPs were exposed as having played the system.

But, as Travers of LSE asks, how healthy is a democracy in which "the legislators are collectively held in contempt?"

The Bagehot column has voiced a similar concern, writing that "a country so intensely suspicious about its leaders, so wide-eyed in its willingness to believe the worst ... is not a country in a good place."

As Yvette Cooper, a former Labour minister, told the BBC, the "nastiness" and "vitriol" that has characterized public debate of late is exactly the kind of thing that Jo Cox would have stood against. She was someone who always sought to bring people together, to unite.

"Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy and a zest for life that would exhaust most people," said Cox's husband, Brendan.

"She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her."

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