Let’s Lower the Stakes: Our Politics Are Not Worth Dying For

When you turn politics into a matter of life and death, there is a risk some people will take you seriously.

Dutch right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn before his death in 2002
Dutch right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn before his death in 2002 (ANP/Robin Utrecht)

Alex Massie has a thoughtful column in The Spectator today following the murder of Labour parliamentarian Jo Cox in the town of Birstall, near Leeds.

It is too early to know for certain what motivated her killer. Some media report the man yelled “Britain first!” as he attacked Cox, who was campaigning to persuade Britons to vote to stay in the European Union in a referendum next week.

If the vote had anything to do with it, it should give the leave campaign pause. They are certainly not to blame, as Massie rightly emphasizes. The killer and the killer alone is responsible.

But when you present politics as a matter of life and death, he suggests — as some of the leading proponents for an exit from the EU have — there is a risk some will take you at your word.

When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged. You cannot turn around and say, “Mate, you weren’t supposed to take it so seriously. It’s just a game, just a ploy, a strategy for winning votes.”

Words have consequences, Massie argues.

If you spend days, weeks, months, years telling people they are under threat, that their country has been stolen from them, that they have been betrayed and sold down the river, that their birthright has been pilfered, that their problem is they’re too slow to realize any of this is happening, that their problem is they’re not sufficiently mad as hell, then at some point, in some place, something or someone is going to snap.

It’s happened before.


In 2002, Pim Fortuyn was shot dead by a far-left fanatic in the Netherlands.

The assassination happened in the final week of a hotly-contested election campaign during which Fortuyn, a political novice, had been absolutely pilloried by most mainstream politicians and the left-wing media for speaking critically about the EU and immigration in a way that would nowadays hardly be controversial anymore. It was at the time, though, and Fortuyn was called a fascist and worse.

The Dutch learned from his death. There are still some on the far left who say the worst things about Geert Wilders, Fortuyn’s political heir. And there are those on the far right who still hold the party leaders of the early 2000s responsible for Fortuyn’s murder. But the vast middle of the country now tries to steer clear of demonization.

Out of hand

Cox’ death is tragic and it’s upsetting. Anyone who takes up violence to settle a political score in a European country is not only a traitor to democracy but has lost all sense of proportion. The political arguments we have here are not worth dying for.

Perhaps it will turn out the referendum had nothing to do with Thursday’s murder. Even so, it’s clear the rhetoric has got out of hand.

The EU is not Adolf Hitler’s superstate fantasy come true. Immigrants aren’t flooding into the United Kingdom and bankrupting the National Health Service. Establishment politicians aren’t conniving with shadowy EU mandarins to keep Britain in the bloc against its will. Nor would leaving trigger a global financial meltdown. People need to stop making such outrageous claims and stop spreading such falsehoods.

There is a serious debate to be had. The question of whether to remain in the EU or leave is the most important one put before British voters in years — but that may say more about previous votes than this one.

Let’s not raise the stakes too high. Indeed, let’s calm down and lower them.

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