Trump Reopened a Wound in British Politics

The 2016 assassination of a member of Parliament by a far-right extremist shocked the U.K. The president’s retweet brought it all back.

People view tributes on June 20, 2016, in memory of murdered Labour Party MP Jo Cox, who was shot dead in London days earlier.

Toby Melville/Reuters

On June 15, 2016, just days before the referendum on whether Britain should withdraw from the European Union, a flotilla of fishing boats entered London on the River Thames. Leading the armada was Nigel Farage, the leader of the euroskeptic U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) and one of the main campaigners for Brexit, who had donned a double-breasted suit for the occasion. The fleet was made up of fishermen angered by EU-imposed fishing quotas. Soon, another flotilla arrived, representing the Remain campaign, led by the Irish rocker and humanitarian Bob Geldof. The two forces were soon engaged in a water fight.

Few on that farcical day noticed a smaller vessel bobbing on the waves nearby flying a giant “In” flag. In it sat a family of four: Brendan Cox, his two children, and his wife, the Labour Party Member of Parliament Jo Cox. Cox was a social justice warrior in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Born into an ordinary family in northern England, she excelled at school and made it to Cambridge. After graduating, she worked briefly in Brussels (the scourge of Brexiteers) before embarking on a high-flying career at Oxfam. She was elected as an MP in 2015, and in the way that junior British politicians often do, carved out a niche for herself. In her case, it was as a campaigner on Syrian human rights.

One day after the clash on the Thames, she would be dead, assassinated by a far-right extremist.

In the world at large, the murder of an obscure left-of-center British politician was soon overshadowed by the decision of the majority of Brits to vote for Brexit. In the U.K., by contrast, the murder continues to haunt the entire political class. It is why the decision this week by “Mr. Brexit,” U.S. President Donald Trump, to retweet some anti-Muslim videos by a member of a fringe organization called Britain First has sparked outrage across party lines. And it is why Prime Minister Theresa May, who said little when Trump introduced his “Muslim ban” earlier this year, felt obliged to publicly criticize a series of tweets.

On the day Jo Cox took to the river, the EU referendum seemed to have obligingly turned into an episode of the popular British show, The Thick of It (an absurdist political satire and forerunner of Veep). The next morning, the tone changed. Farage, back on dry land, unveiled a new poster, which showed a long line of dark-skinned asylum-seekers trudging through green countryside. The title of the poster was “Breaking Point.”

Excluded from the official Vote Leave campaign, which focused on parliamentary sovereignty, Farage had run his own parallel campaign. Although he had failed several times to be elected as an MP, he had mastered the art of hinting at the unsayable. The “Breaking Point” picture tapped into widespread unease about the previous summer, when around 1 million asylum-seekers arrived in Europe—at least three times as many as the previous year.

Emblazoning an alt-right meme on a billboard may seem standard practice in the today’s Trumpian world, but way back in 2016, many felt this was a dogwhistle too far. Commentators accused Farage of aping Nazi propaganda (still heinous in a country that defines itself by World War II), and misleading voters with a picture taken in Slovenia when very few asylum-seekers made it to Britain.

It was at that moment, while the nation was debating a poster, that a loner called Thomas Mair picked up a sawed-off rifle, walked up to Cox in her northern English constituency, and shot her. According to eyewitnesses, he shouted: “Britain first, keep Britain independent, Britain will always come first.”

At his trial, which took place after the Brexit vote, it became clear that Mair had been a white supremacist for years who had slowly self-radicalized in the privacy of his own home. But it also became clear that Britain’s far right could not be dismissed any longer. In particular, attention fell on Britain First, a group previously scoffed at for organizing “Christian patrols” and badly attended mosque protests. First condemned the attack and denied any involvement, arguing that the phrase “Britain First” was taken out of context.

Its mockers should have looked online. Today it has nearly 2 million Facebook supporters, many of them huge fans of—you guessed it—deputy leader Jayda Fransen, whose videos Trump retweeted on Wednesday. Channel, the government’s program for preventing violent radicalism, reported in June 2017 that one-third of its referrals concern people with far-right views. The same month, a group of Muslims were leaving a mosque in North London after prayers when a van plowed into them, killing one. While the case is ongoing, May described it as a terrorist attack—a shift from a prime minister better known for her uncompromising position on extremism.

Meanwhile, Leave.EU, the parallel Brexit campaign set up by Farage, continues to pump out information on social media and seek common cause with other far right populist groups in Europe. Today, its campaigns do not only involve British sovereignty, but backing Defend Europe’s “anti-migrant boat” operating in the Mediterranean, which intercepts asylum-seekers crossing to Europe and dumps them back in North Africa. While right-wing groups argue they condemn violence, evidence of the charged atmosphere is available through hate crime data. In the United Kingdom, it is illegal to be hostile to someone based on their race, religion, or sexual orientation—yet 2016–17 police figures show that hate crimes in England and Wales rose by 29 percent (there was a surge at the time of the EU referendum, and another at the election of Trump).

On its Facebook page, Britain First uses the “Breaking Point” image unveiled by Farage and retitles it “This is not immigration—this is an invasion.” It shares videos of “anti-grooming protests” held outside kebab shops, tapping into widespread discomfort over a scandal of sex abuse involving British South Asian men that the political establishment is perceived to have ignored. Unusually for British politics, it also employs religious language, describing the maroon-haired Fransen as a “soldier of Christ.”

This rhetoric could not be more different from that employed by MPs at Westminster. They range from former left-wing colleagues of Cox, who have thrown themselves into Cox’s causes, particularly Syrian refugees, and consider the far right an existential crisis, to pragmatic conservatives who are nevertheless repelled by Trump. Asked about Trump’s tweets, May made it clear she did not believe any of her Cabinet ministers (which include prominent Brexiteers) would retweet material shared by Britain First.

By contrast, Britain First has been gleefully sharing the outrage. It even posted a photo of Trump and demanded of its followers, “Do you support Donald Trump?” The answer was a resounding yes.

In the 20th century, mainstream British politicians almost entirely succeeded in excluding the far right from Parliament. Yet just as Farage managed to shape British politics without ever holding a Westminster seat, Trump’s pronouncements across the Atlantic are increasingly forming a counternarrative to that of the political establishment. While the government agonizes over the details of an unwieldy Brexit, groups like Britain First and Leave.EU keep a relentless focus on an issue in theory entirely separate from leaving the EU: Muslims. “Islamophobic…And proud” read a recent post on Britain First’s Facebook page. Ethnonationalism, too, is making a comeback. Members of the white nationalist Identitarian movement are reportedly looking to open a London branch. In September, the government banned a Scottish neo-Nazi group, Scottish Dawn, under anti-terrorism laws.

Perhaps the most telling illustration of the gap between the politicians elected by the U.K.’s “winner takes all” first past the post system and the extremism raging on the margins was at the by-election for Cox’s constituency on Oct. 20, 2016. Out of respect for Cox, all the established political parties, including UKIP, announced they would not stand a candidate.

Labour’s Tracy Brabin, a former actor in the British soap Coronation Street, won the seat. The bright-eyed new MP paid tribute to Cox in her victory speech. She was booed by the small groups of political unknowns watching from the sidelines. They were the far right.