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Opinion Fear and loathing in England as the Brexit debate brings out the worst

"It feels like it's all gone mad here," a friend messaged from London. "We're all so divided." He was talking about the EU referendum, but also responding to the horrible murder of the bright young Labour MP Jo Cox, who was shot and stabbed to death last Thursday in her Yorkshire constituency.

By the end of the week, an increasingly nasty campaign had become inextricably linked with Ms. Cox's death. It was unclear whether her murder was politically motivated, though there are reports that the suspect yelled "Britain First" – the name of an extreme-right, xenophobic group – before he attacked her. He also apparently bought reading material and instructions for making a homemade gun from neo-Nazi groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Centre. The Guardian newspaper reported that police found Nazi paraphernalia at his home. Ms. Cox was pro-migration, pro-EU, and had worked with Syrian refugees.

Both sides of the so-called Brexit fight brought their campaigning to a temporary halt, but there's already a crack through the country that may never be bridged. "How foul this referendum is," novelist Robert Harris wrote on Twitter. "The most depressing, divisive, duplicitous political event of my lifetime. May there never be another." (Full disclosure: I'm a joint British-Canadian citizen, and though I haven't voted in the referendum, I would like to see Britain remain part of the European project.)

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Brexit explained: The latest updates and what you need to know

What had seemed like a Monty Python movie – Leave champion Nigel Farage engaging in a shouting match with Bob Geldof in the middle of the Thames, for example – has instead turned into a Hammer horror film. Each side is engaged in what the Daily Telegraph calls "Project Fear."

The Leave campaign, which polls show slightly ahead at the moment, plays on age-old terrors of immigrant invasion. Its support, while widespread and mainstream, includes at least some people who share the views of a woman who told the BBC's Question Time: "It's about the English culture … when we allow ourselves to keep being invaded, we are being diluted."

Last week, Leave had convoys of trucks driving around London plastered with huge billboards showing a crowd of trudging migrants next to the slogan "Vote Leave." It circulated a widely debunked pamphlet about how millions of Turks would soon arrive on Britain's shores, complete with inflammatory statements about the crime rate in Turkey. It is a powerful and baldly racist appeal to a fairy-tale English past (before the Norman conquest, I guess. And those pesky Romans.)

It is no coincidence that the Leave campaign wraps itself in the Union flag, features ads with British bulldogs, and makes sly reference to the country's great triumph of 70 years ago: Mr. Farage's Thames flotilla, while ostensibly a statement about EU fishing regulations, was undoubtedly meant to bring to mind the little ships of Dunkirk. MP Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, likes to cite Winston Churchill and evoke British military triumphs to argue against the idea of a united Europe: "Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out," he said, "and it ends tragically."

Mr. Johnson had the nostalgia hose turned on full this week when he was pictured in Cromer (the quintessential English seaside town) purchasing a 99 (the nickname for soft-serve ice-cream cones traditionally enjoyed at the seaside on the rare days the sun shines.) Mr. Johnson had to take time out from his 99 to rebut suggestions from the Bank of England that the pound could drop "sharply" in the wake of Brexit.

The Bank of England is not alone in issuing a warning, and much of Remain's argument rests on the fear of a post-Brexit collapse. The International Monetary Fund and the Institute for Fiscal Studies have argued that the economic costs could be dire. Prime Minister David Cameron warns that seniors could lose their pensions and bus passes. George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, enraged pro-Leave Tories with his threat to bring in a tax-raising budget in the event Britain severs ties with Europe. President Barack Obama says a Europe-less Britain will move "to the back of the queue" in trade negotiations with the U.S. Former British Prime Minister John Major, who calls the Leave campaign "squalid," is worried about the precious public-health system: "The NHS is as safe with them as a pet hamster would be with a hungry python."

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These arguments might prove futile, because a fundamental mistrust of expert opinion lies at the heart of Brexiters' desire. The head follows where the heart leads. Supporters of the Leave campaign do not appear to be swayed by the advice of boffins, no matter how well-grounded in evidence: A YouGov poll revealed that 68 per cent of Leave supporters agree with the statement, "It's wrong to rely too much on so-called experts and better to rely on ordinary people." Twenty-four per cent of Remain voters felt the same way.

Which argument will win, fear or fear? Will Britain decide to turn its face to the world, or hunch inward and hope for the best? Does it want to build a new kind of society, or continue to long for a mythical dream of the past? I keep thinking about what Ms. Cox said in her maiden speech to Parliament, as she lauded the diversity of her constituency: "We've got some of the best fish and chips in the country, and curries in the world."

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