A dark cloud hangs over Britain and the western world. In Orlando, Florida last week, a man unable to come to terms with his own sexuality gunned down 49 innocents in a gay nightclub. While most sentient human beings reacted with shock and horror, a deeply dangerous fool with a realistic chance of becoming the next US President tweeted to accept “congratulations” that he had correctly predicted such an atrocity would happen.
Then, this week, in the country which inadvertently spawned the United States, a young mother and a member of the mother of parliaments was shot and stabbed to death by a fascist, a terrorist, a coward. This time, the group which inspired the murderer, Britain First, tweeted not to condemn the assassination, but simply to distance itself from it.
How did we get to this? How did a nation that looked so modern and vibrant and diverse in that heady Olympic summer of 2012 become so frightened of its own shadow? Was it always truly like this away from the London lights that filled TV screens at that glorious opening ceremony only four years ago?
If the answers were obvious, we’d know them by now. Perhaps Sir Michael Caine’s Alfred was right to declare, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” More likely, there is something connecting the dots between the rise of extremists the world over. We may not understand all of the reasons why, or even most of them, but it is surely better to try to understand than them to tamely surrender.
For years now, the British political class has accepted the mantra that “it’s not racist to talk about immigration.” This is, of course, a logical statement. It’s not racist to talk about racism either. But the context behind that – that concerns about immigration, however they are put, should be met with a tongue held back and an understanding nod – is another thing entirely. It isn’t racist to talk about immigration, but it is racist to despise immigrants.
The problem is that when the political mainstream stops fighting its own corner and acquiesces to the forces of populism and anti-politics and endless referenda, the people who bind our politics together – politicians – are left dangerously exposed. In the case of Jo Cox, fatally. And in the vacuum that is left behind, another Britain now seems possible – Farage’s.
So here we are. The enemy is at the gates. Snarling and smirking at the prospect of creating a truly broken Britain, shorn of Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland – countries that would immediately seek to join the EU independently of Little England. Not two nations, but four. Divided by class, age and race. Divided, perhaps, beyond repair.
In a few days’ time, the British people may decide to commit collective economic and social suicide. It’s not the economy anymore, stupid, but the politics of fear. A fear whipped up by the media and certain politicians alike year after year after year. Fear of outsiders. Fear of your next door neighbour. Fear of a world changing too fast for people in Britain and elsewhere to handle.
It is far too late in this fight for gentility or nuance. The whole fury and might of the Labour movement must now be turned towards taking our country back from those who would make it a smaller, a darker, and a more divided place. For all the coverage of the Conservative Party in this referendum, it will be the Labour vote that decides which way the result goes.
Only the Labour Party and the Labour vote can prevent a Tory Brexit now. If we succeed, we will give ourselves a chance to fight for the kind of more decent society for which Jo Cox was striving. The achievements of previous Labour governments are becoming more distant with every day of Tory rule. They would be so much further away if the right secured its ultimate triumph on Thursday.
But if we fail, then the Britain previous generations fought for – a tolerant, democratic, welcoming country – may sink into the abyss at a time when the world is becoming increasingly menacing and uncertain. If we cannot get the Labour vote out for Remain on Thursday, then we may struggle to ever get it out again.
This has been a sorry period in the history of British politics. Even as a local councillor, I have been told to simply put up with the endless abuse that is dolled out to politicians at all levels on social media. Something seems to have snapped in our national psyche and, even if we vote to Remain, the task of knitting it back together may only just be beginning.
But all is not lost. The battle is not yet over. The fight is not yet finished. Britain’s best days can still be ahead of it if we choose to turn out towards the world and not away from it.
The die is cast. The final act is nearly upon us.
Let this be Labour’s finest hour.