Skip to main content
julia rampen

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of The New Statesman, a British weekly magazine.

British politicians don't get shot. That's why, when the news broke on June 16, 2016, that a little-known Labour MP had been attacked in her constituency, among the rolling hills of West Yorkshire, at first it seemed unbelievable. At The Mirror, the left-wing tabloid where I was working at the time, veteran journalists walked around the newsroom in a daze.

Later, after it became clear Jo Cox had died, I went down to the memorial that sprung up in Westminster Square, outside Parliament. It was days before the European Union referendum, but both sides had paused their campaigns. Among the subdued onlookers, I met a teenager who ran one of the local Leave campaigns. Ms. Cox had been a prominent supporter of Remain, but the teenager told me he was so upset by the murder that he had travelled almost 500 kilometres to pay his respects.

Ms. Cox's murderer, Thomas Mair, was a recluse obsessed with the Nazis and white supremacy. He had shouted "Britain first" as he shot her with a sawed-off shotgun.

It is this story that occupied many MPs' minds when they gathered to debate the spat this week between the U.S. President, Donald Trump, and the British Prime Minister, Theresa May. Mr. Trump had retweeted videos shared by Jayda Fransen, the deputy leader of Britain First, a far-right organization founded in 2011.

Although the far right has tried to paint Mr. Mair as a troubled individual, many have drawn a connection between the organization, which has nearly two million likes on Facebook, and the words he used. Brendan Cox, Jo's widow, tweeted: "Trump has legitimised the far right in his own country, now he's trying to do it in ours. Spreading hatred has consequences & the President should be ashamed of himself."

The seriousness with which the British establishment takes Mr. Trump's tweets was underlined by a rare show of disapproval by the otherwise diplomatic British Prime Minister (in January, the nation winced after photographs emerged of Mr. Trump taking her hand during their first encounter).

On Wednesday, Ms. May released a statement declaring: "Britain First seeks to divide communities by their use of hateful narratives that peddle lies and stoke tensions."

Trump lashed back on Twitter: "@Theresa_May, don't focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!" The President also caused inadvertent hilarity by including the wrong Theresa May in his initial tweet.

Mr. Trump may have made the British far right's day, but he has succeeded in alienating everyone that matters. While Nigel Farage, the former leader of the right-wing populist UK Independence Party, may appear at Trump rallies, he never succeeded in winning a parliamentary seat at Westminster. Unease about Mr. Trump is widespread among not just left-wing Labour politicians but also the Tories. Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Tory party, has previously described him as a "clay-brained guts, knotty-pated fool, whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch." The prospect of a state visit from Mr. Trump has been quietly kicked into the long grass. Sajid Javid, a British-Muslim cabinet minister, tweeted: "So POTUS has endorsed the views of a vile, hate-filled racist organisation that hates me and people like me. He is wrong and I refuse to let it go and say nothing."

Ironically, for all Mr. Trump's criticism, Ms. May – who ran the Home Office before she became Prime Minister – is often criticized for cracking down exclusively on Islamist terrorism. However, the rise of far-right extremism in Britain is becoming harder and harder for politicians to ignore. Almost exactly a year after the murder of Ms. Cox, a group of Muslims in North London was leaving a mosque when a car plowed into them, killing one. On Britain First's Facebook page, far-right extremists celebrated, calling the attacker "a hero."

Ms. May, on the other hand, called that Finsbury Park attack an act of terrorism. Reporting on the attack, in a neighbourhood where Turkish restaurateurs live side-by-side with hipsters, I found residents worried, scared, but most of all furious with the far right. Even today, many windows still display a poster declaring: "#Lovewillwin #Terrorwilllose".

Mr. Trump may feel that he's scored his social-media hit for the day, but in the U.K., the mood, for once, is united. Ms. May, an embattled Prime Minister, has been defended by left and right for standing up to Mr. Trump. Indeed, many are hoping for more, recalling the famous scene in Love Actually where Hugh Grant's British Prime Minister says no to a bullying U.S. President. It's amazing the consensus Mr. Trump can bring about in a single tweet.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct