Jo Cox’s legacy to democracy

Amongst all the things which Jo Cox achieved and represented in life, in death she may produce a further great service. It would be a fitting memorial or tribute to this remarkable person that we start to reverse the cynicism with which the electorate, media and entertainment industry regard politicians.

Jo Cox was remarkable. Oddly, though, this is the right moment to note that it wasn’t her being an extraordinary MP which led to her being in harm’s way when she died. She was doing what hundreds of MPs do every week or month: she was sacrificing what for most people is precious free time to be amongst her constituents.

Here’s the bigger, crucial point. It is often said that society gets the politicians it deserves. Actually, and perhaps especially in this country, voters have had generations of politicians who on the whole have been far better than a largely lazy and selfish electorate deserves. We should count ourselves lucky.

It is important to note that politics and Parliament does not thrive merely on a diet of virtuous, sensible, stable, clever, or kindly MPs. Like capitalism, or the theatre, or journalism, it thrives because from the whole gamut of humanity – including energetic, thrusting, egotistical types and, yes, chancers – there are those who find themselves drawn to the risk of that form of public life.

The miracle of society is that its institutions – markets, firms, newspapers, theatres, and certainly parliaments – turn all this ambition, all these mixed motives, into something splendid and useful.

There is plenty of room for anxiety about the health of our professional and commercial elites. Oddly, one might think, that is much less true of our politicians, who seem, if anything, to be getting better and better.

Of course, the voter and everyone else should hold politicians to account and watch them carefully. Of course, on the other hand, the voter should not be expected to take an obsessive interest in policy or even in politics.

And yet, what we have quite recently seen is a corrosive cynicism, and a debilitating contempt, toward politicians. This is the easy dissidence of the well-governed, albeit in a period when politics has boringly but necessarily, and rather happily, been a race to the middle, a row about small differences. A few very minor political scandals (wildly inflated by the media, whether “social”,  commercial or state-mandated) have accelerated the trend. The public has taken every excuse to distance themselves from what is a pretty good, and certainly necessary affair.

I hope it is not an impertinence to point out that Jo Cox’s murder may produce an awareness that politicians are an extraordinary and useful bunch for whom we can be profoundly grateful.



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Publication date

18 June 2016