Britain is reeling from the murder of well-loved MP Jo Cox which has frozen campaigning at its frantic peak a week before the EU referendum.
The 41-year-old former aid worker and pro-EU campaigner known for her advocacy on behalf of Syrian refugees, was killed outside a library where she regularly met constituents in her home village of Birstall in west Yorkshire on Thursday. Witnesses told local media the petite mother of two had been repeatedly shot and stabbed.
Both the Leave and Remain sides announced they would halt campaigning as a mark of respect, as commentators questioned whether the tone of the campaign had been divisive. The murder overshadowed a by-election victory by Cox’s Labour party in Tooting in the early hours of Friday.
“Given the horrific events of today and the shocking death of Jo Cox, I do not intend to make a speech,” the newly-elected MP Rosena Allin-Khan told the subdued counting centre.
“Jo’s death reminds us that our democracy is precious but fragile, we must never forget to cherish it.” Earlier, dozens had gathered outside the Houses of Parliament in a vigil to remember Cox attended by Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, flanked by tearful party colleagues. “What’s happened is beyond appalling. We are here in silent memory of her loss,” Corbyn said as rain began to fall.
“She was a fearless campaigner, and a voice for the voiceless. We feel shaken,” said Fatima Ibrahim, 23, an activist with Avaaz. In the quaint streets of Birstall, the scene of the attack was cordoned off and police could be seen examining a shoe and a handbag. Mourners left flowers nearby in tribute.
Police said an investigation was under way to determine the motive for the murder, the first killing of an MP since Ian Gow died in a car bomb planted by the Irish Republican Army in 1990.
There were some indications that the man named by media as the attacker, 52-year-old Thomas Mair, may have had extreme right-wing leanings. ‘White nationalism’ -US advocacy group the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that Mair was a “dedicated supporter” of National Alliance, once the primary neo-Nazi organisation in the United States.
It said Mair had spent over £434 on reading material from the group, which advocated the creation of an all-white homeland and the eradication of Jewish people. “Neighbours called him a “loner,” but he also has a long history with white nationalism,” the Southern Poverty Law Center said.
It added that Mair had purchased a handbook with instructions on how to make a gun, noting that witnesses told British media the assailant used a gun of “old-fashioned” or “homemade” appearance.
One witness of the attack, cafe owner Clarke Rothwell, told the Press Association that the gunman had shouted “put Britain first” repeatedly during the attack. Britain First- far-right anti-immigration group, released a statement saying it was “obviously not involved” and “would never encourage behaviour of this sort”.
Mair’s brother, Scott Mair, told the Daily Telegraph that Thomas “is not violent and is not all that political”. “He has a history of mental illness, but he has had help,” Scott Mair said. The newspaper also reported that Thomas Mair had been a subscriber to a magazine published by a South African pro-apartheid group.
In the wake of the attack, commentators questioned whether the tone of the EU referendum campaign had stirred up ugly currents. Alex Massie noted in the Spectator magazine that the day had begun with the unveiling of an anti-EU poster featuring a queue of migrants and refugees and the words “Breaking point”.
“The message was not very subtle: Vote Leave, Britain, or be overrun by brown people,” Massie wrote. “When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don’t be surprised if someone takes you at your word.”
Before the suspension of the campaign, polls had indicated the result of the referendum could be on a knife-edge following an uptick in support for the pro-Leave side.
Cox, whose first speech in parliament defended immigration and diversity, lived with her husband Brendan and their two children aged three and five, on a house boat on London’s river Thames.
As the news of her death broke, Brendan issued a an impassioned appeal for unity against hatred. “She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now,” he wrote.
“One, that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her.”