Brexit debate resumes in softer tones after Jo Cox's death

How the killing of British member of Parliament Jo Cox influences British voters can be debated long after the June 23 referendum on Brexit. But the tragedy has already created a shift in the tone of debate. 

Matt Dunham/AP
Staff from Britain's opposition Labour Party including at the front MP John Cryer, left, the chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party and Iain McNicol, right, the party's General Secretary pay their respects after placing floral tributes for their colleague Jo Cox, the 41-year-old British member of Parliament shot to death in northern England, on Parliament Square outside the House of Parliament in London, Friday. The killing of the member of Parliament has shocked the nation and led to calls for a softening of the controversial Brexit debate.

British political leaders have suspended campaigns for and against a June 23 vote to leave the European Union, as the killing of member of Parliament Jo Cox on Thursday prompts resolve to soften the tone of political debate. 

The closest votes often drive the nastiest comments, and the "Brexit" debate over Britain's future relations with the European Union remains close, Bloomberg reported. 

"I don't want to stab the Prime Minister in the back – I want to stab him in the front so I can see the expression on his face," one unnamed Conservative member of Parliament told the Sunday Times in response to a particularly controversial Brexit-related move. "You'd have to twist the knife, though, because we want it back for [Chancellor of the Exchequer George] Osborne."

The rancor has risen for reasons not dissimilar from those that have made the US presidential debate so controversial: difficult decisions over immigration, economic stagnation, and the social media echo chamber.

"We've got too used to not respecting that people may have strongly held views and come to a different result," said Liz Kendall, a member of the British Parliament and friend of Cox, according to Bloomberg. "On social media, you're in an echo chamber of those on your side, and those against, and being measured doesn't get you anywhere. This is what we're all thinking about, whether or not that's directly linked to this awful tragedy."

In the aftermath of the stabbing, other politicians expressed concerns for both their personal safety and the health of British democracy.  

"This has never been a part of our political culture here in the United Kingdom, but at the same time, neither has the use of very extremist, almost, political messaging," Conservative MEP Saj Karim told the BBC. "I've come across people who have simply been repeating those same sound bites that they've been hearing on the television and radio."

Mr. Karim said he had reported several "very direct threats" made against him to the police, saying they reveal an alarming tone out of character with British politics. 

"It really has led to a situation now where campaigning has had to be suspended, and people genuinely, I think, are within their rights to feel quite intimidated by what has happened, but this is a culture which is completely alien to British democracy," he told the BBC.

The shock has prompted reflection, and many express confidence that when debate resumes on Sunday, it will commence again with a fresh and broader perspective, as The Christian Science Monitor's Jason Thomson wrote:

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.  

During a London vigil for the slain MP, a former acting Labour leader Harriet Harman quoted Cox's husband, who called to "unite against the hate that killed her."

"We will still have our political arguments," she said, according to the BBC. "But let's think about how Jo did her politics, let's aspire to leave behind the venom and the toxicity and the division."

Leaders have promised substantive alterations in the tone of the campaign materials planned for Sunday and Monday. The British Labour Party said all materials were being reviewed over the weekend for personal attacks and "inappropriate language," the Guardian reported. The official Britain Stronger in Europe campaign said it would subdue its plans for an aggressive, final-week push.

A senior spokesman for the pro-Brexit campaign said it would continue to tackle the most difficult subjects such as immigration, but minus a planned appearance by former London Mayor Boris Johnson aboard a hovercraft. 

"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 political science professor at the London School of Economics, told The Christian Science Monitor, "partly because all parliamentarians, not only in Britain, share to some degree a sense of common purpose."

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