Even though it is nearly half a century since MPs confirmed the abolition of hanging, not least to minimise the number of miscarriages of justice, each of the past five decades has, on occasion, witnessed premeditated acts which are so violent, so sickening and so chilling that they do prompt soul-searching about this country’s liberal values.
Mair’s assassination of a democratically-elected MP, who was arriving at Birstall Library for a constituency surgery a week before the EU referendum, falls into this category. He inflicted 15 savage knife wounds on the defenceless mother-of-two, as she pleaded with her staff to run for their lives, and shot the helpless Mrs Cox three times for good measure. The unemployed gardener then fled the scene, shouting ‘Britain First’.
Given the neo-Nazi sympathiser will now spend the rest of his life at the public expense in a maximum security prison where he will inevitably enjoy protected status because of his notoriety and infamy, this will be the final insult for many.
It’s the same with those criminals convicted of the murder of police officers, teachers or other pillars of the community – should they languish behind bars, with no bills to pay, or would the threat of capital punishment act, to be applied in the most extreme cases where there’s no doubt of culpability, act as a deterrent?
And then I think of the diminutive Jo Cox, a champion of compassion, beacon of hope and larger than life force for good in a troubled world. Without wishing to be presumptuous, her very humanity meant that she would have argued that the criminal justice system should not differentiate between acts of murder because of the status of the victim. Why, for example, should a politician’s murder be treated any differently to a teenager knifed to death in a random act?
A hard truth, the conclusion of this disturbing case must not prompt an irrational response which widens divisions in a fractured society where those who shout loudest appear to hold sway. As the MP’s widower Brendan tweeted at the outset of Mair’s trial, it’s important to “remember Jo’s life and what she stood for, not the manner of her death”.
Yet it’s more profound than this. It should be a source of pride that Britain has a Parliamentary democracy where MPs are accessible to their constituents. On the whole, they’re not individuals motivated by self-interest, they are selfless people who simply want to serve.
How tragic and regrettable if this openness is put at risk by a lone lunatic who was squirrelling away Nazi propaganda and paraphernalia, his twisted mind becoming even more warped, while refusing to engage in any rational or reasoned discussion about immigration – a discussion which Mrs Cox would have actually welcomed.
After all, the then Batley & Spen MP wrote a prophetic article on these pages six days before her death which began: “Let me be clear from the start: it’s fine to be concerned about immigration – many people are. This doesn’t mean to say they are racist or xenophobic – they are simply concerned about pressures on GP surgeries or schools, or how once familiar town centres are changing, or whether they’ll be able to compete with migrant workers to get a job.”
That’s the irony, Mrs Cox understood this issue more than most. Yet she lost her life for holding this entirely reasonable view, a life that had so much more to offer to her her family, her constituency and her country.
It was summed up by the email that the former Lib Dem leader, Paddy Ashdown, received from Mrs Cox on May 28 just three weeks before her death. As the referendum battle intensified, she wanted greater political action to ease the plight of Syria’s stricken refugees.
He recalled: “In typical Jo fashion she wrote saying, ‘Paddy, sorry to disturb your bank holiday weekend. I hope you are getting something of a break. Please will you sign the attached statement?’ So, of course I did and I wrote back to her saying, ‘You are wonderful, Jo. Thanks. Yes, that is fine. I am so involved in the referendum that I have little time for anything else. Fortunately, we and the starving in Syria have you’.” But we do not any longer, and that cause is hugely diminished. In characteristic Jo style she wrote back to me saying, ‘Thank you, Paddy. Keep up the good work. Jo. X’. What else would you expect from her?”
A politician prepared to work with others, Jo Cox’s loss was summed up by the prosecutor Richard Whittam QC who began his summing up at the Old Bailey with this assertion: “The sheer brutality of her murder and the utter cowardice of her murderer bring the two extremities of humanity face to face.”
As in the aftermath of the MP’s murder, the country and community will be judged by its reaction to Mair’s conviction. That is why any debate about capital punishment is futile – it detracts from the need to honour Jo Cox’s memory and her maiden speech to Parliament when she declared: “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
While Thomas Mair will never be forgiven, for both the murder and his cowardice in court when he offered no explanation for his actions, it now falls to the rest of society to ensure that Jo Cox and her values are never forgotten.