Brendan Cox speaking at Kircaldy. 18th March 2017
“We spend too much time talking about what divides us and not enough about what brings us together.”
- Brendan Cox
Thank you very much for inviting me to speak.
Part of the reason I am here this evening is because of my connection with Gordon Brown who I was lucky enough to work for during his period as Prime Minister.
I remember getting draft speeches from him on international development that he’d worked on early in the mornings - these drafts were full of intellectual rigour, passion and insight - but, to put it mildly, the form often needed some polishing.
Firstly, Gordon’s approach to typing was somewhat creative, more directional than specific.
Colleagues used to joke that he was writing in Serbo-croat. I’d learnt Serbo-croat and I have to say I found that much easier to decipher.
Secondly, the style itself often needed some work. That was fair enough - he was a busy guy. I’d often scroll down to the bottom to see how the speech unfolded and his final paragraph would often begin - “and, twenty sixthly”.
I learnt a lot from my time working for Gordon and that includes my approach to speeches.
Luckily for you however, I don’t have the same intellectual capacity as Gordon so tonight I’m going talk about nine things we need to do to tackle extremism.
I’d been working to counter extremism and hatred long before it attacked my own family.
That journey began when aged 18 I went to the former Yugoslavia in the immediate aftermath of the war, to work with children who had survived the siege of Sarajevo.
For the next ten years I spent every summer and every Christmas running holiday camps, volunteering in orphanages and teaching in schools.
I worked with children from Mostar, Vukovar and most distressingly, Srebrenica, all of whom had had their lives, their families and their futures destroyed by ethnic and religious hatred.
For me, this was a huge formative experience. I remember the horrific screams at night of kids whose nightmares felt more real to them than real life. I remember the kids who hardly spoke and those who would flinch whenever there was a loud bang.
One of the messages that meant the most to me after Jo was killed was a Facebook message from one of the kids who I had worked with and visited since they were a toddler.
It simply said - you and Jo were there for us and now we are all here for you and your children.
From that early experience, I’ve spent my whole life thinking about what I can do to tackle the hatred that scarred the lives of so many children.
I’ve worked with charities and campaign groups to address civil wars and genocide in countries as diverse as Sudan and Rwanda, Bosnia and Syria, Jo and I worked on these causes together, she came to Bosnia and Croatia with me where the kids I had known for a decade called her Yo and thought she was a wonder woman.
She threw herself into the games, so much so that chasing a 14 year old one evening in a game of ‘it’ she ran straight into a tree and nearly knocked herself out.
Jo and I travelled together when she worked for Oxfam to different conflicts and worked together to push for action to address them.
At that stage of our lives Jo and I focussed our work internationally - because we felt that the underpinnings of our own democracy and rights were secure.
There were of course huge issues of social justice in western societies but the fundamental underpinnings of liberalism we felt were well anchored and our efforts were best directed overseas.
A few years ago both Jo and I started to question that assumption. Jo first.
It wasn’t any one factor but rising hate crimes, the growth of the far right and the European response to the refugee crisis were all elements in our thinking.
So knowing that our first responsibility was always to where we lived, we thought and worried more about the UK and Europe than we ever had before.
Jo as a candidate for MP and then as an MP and I as a campaigner and researcher.
I have now spent the last year and a half trying to understand rising extremism across Europe, looking at its origins, the dynamics of public opinion and most importantly what we might do about it.
I’ve spent time in France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Poland, Netherlands, Slovakia and the US among others, and spoken to academics, politicians, journalists and civil society groups.
The nine points I’m going to outline now are some of my thoughts to date. They aren’t exhaustive, none of them are polished and if anyone can think of a tenth point, just so it’s a ten-point plan, I’d be highly indebted to them.
1) Take it seriously. For too long we have been complacent. Assuming rising support for the far right was just a blip, a protest vote or limited to a couple of countries. Even now, in the face of incontrovertible evidence that something more fundamental is happening - we try to reassure ourselves that things are as they were. We have got to the absurd position of celebrating fascists coming second in national elections (rather than first), as if that is a great outcome. I’m not suggesting that we become defeatist, but unless we are clear about the size and scale of the challenge we will be defeated by it.
We have to realise that there is no automatic break in society, nothing that stops us coming off the tracks.
Our values and institutions are only as strong as the public support for them, and each generation must fight to protect and sustain them.
2) Call it what it is: Populism is too kind a term. In fact in most countries these groups we refer to as populists are in fact - consistently unpopular. While many have been growing in size, in most countries they don’t represent more that 20% of voters and only in Hungary do they represent more than half of voters.
In the rare cases where they do win elections, they have done so on a minority of the vote.
More importantly, the people who lead these movements are not populists, they are racists, bigots and xenophobes, intent on tearing our communities apart.
Until we call them what they are we will lull people into a false sense of security and play down the hatred that motivates their leadership.
3) Don’t assume that this is about a specific group and if only we could assuage concerns about that group - for example if people just understood Islam - that things would be different.
The front line of extremism shifts over place and over time. In the UK at the moment the group most targeted might be migrants, ten years ago it might have been black Britons. In Germany it’s hatred towards refugees, in the Netherlands it’s about Islam, in France it’s French citizens originally from Algeria, in Poland it’s Jews as much as Muslims and in America you can go from Mexicans to Muslims to African Americans in the one day.
What is clear is that it’s not really about the characteristics any of these groups per se. It’s about people’s perception of otherness.
4) There is no easy policy solution. The concerns with otherness are always there, but they are more potent when they are fed by insecurities.
At present three insecurities are combining in a toxic mix.
- Economic insecurity (driven by low wages, increasing cost of living, changes in the economy and globalisation),
- physical insecurity (namely crime but more especially perceptions of the threat of islamist terror attacks.)
- and identity (challenged by immigration, changing high streets, cultural change).
As a matter of public policy we can and we must address each of these insecurities, but we mustn’t kid ourselves that they will go away. So alongside this policy approach, we need a community wide attempt to build more inclusive communities and to tackle the fear of the other.
5) To counter the threat of extremism we have to unite as a community. What has happened in recent years is not that societies have become less tolerant - in fact most are steadily becoming more so.
The problem is that the far right voices (who make up a small minority) have become better organised and more vocal, they have positioned themselves as the silent majority when they are neither silent nor a majority.
They have dominated the debate not through winning people over but by organising and shouting loudest. Meanwhile the pro-tolerance side of the argument is diffuse and split into silos.
You will know Pastor Niemoller’s poem,
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because i was not a Socialist,
Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist
They they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew
And then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.
Those words are not just poetry, they are a desperate cry for us to learn the lessons of the 1930’s and a strategic plea for us to bring communities together to fight the attacks upon each of us, as if they were an attack on us all.
6) We have to reach out to people who are anxious. They have concerns about things like immigration and the pace of change, but they have empathy and a belief in inclusion as well. They are good people who worry about their community.
Too often people on the left of politics see everyone who doesn’t agree with them as deplorables, and that is a huge mistake.
The Bush mentality of ‘you’re either with us or against us’ is not one that we should adopt.
In the UK that mistake has been made in the way many people talk about Brexit. The vast majority of people who voted for Brexit weren’t driven by racism or bigotry, they voted for Brexit for completely legitimate reasons, whether or not you agree with them.
To align their support for Brexit with support for intolerance and bigotry does them a disservice, is untrue and much more likely to drive them into the arms of the angry extremists.
The problem at the moment is that no one is consistently engaging with the most anxious groups.
Sections of the left actively alienate them by talking about open borders and looking like they are ashamed of our country,
meanwhile when the right refuses to talk about growing inequality and economic insecurity, these people feel like they have nowhere to go.
7) We should unashamedly talk about what makes our country a great place to live.
It was something Jo did instinctively. She was proud to be from Yorkshire, proud to be English and proud to be British.
She saw no tension between that layered identity and having an inclusive view of her community and an interest and openness to the world.
Because there is no tension.
For too long we have let the far right wave the flag. It is time we took it back.
To talk about the things that make our country great and the things that together make us who we are.
We should also make it clear that the far right are no patriots, they support a foreign ideology that many of our grandparents dies to defeat, they are often supported by the security apparatus of the Russian state.
As the judge said in the trail of the person who killed Jo, it was she who was the true patriot, he was no such thing.
8) A core part of this is to talk about what we have in common - not to fixate on what divides us.
In the aftermath of Jo’s death the phrase More in Common - taken from her maiden speech- has been popularised.
At its core is a simple insight - that we spend too much time talking about what divides us and not enough about what brings us together.
For example we spend huge amounts of media time talking about referenda and elections and too little about the things that unite us.
Liberal audiences make the same mistake. They emphasise and celebrate diversity and difference, when it’s even more important to talk about the things that bring us together, sameness, commonality.
9) Lastly, and most importantly, the best way of defeating extremism is to work locally to build closer communities.
We all long to live in closer communities, we worry about not knowing our neighbours like we used to, we’d like our kids to be able to pop round and play rather than like each others Facebook posts.
Jo’s politics started with her sense of community, they came from her granddad Arthur, a postman who knew everyone and who would walk for hours pushing Jo in her pram.
Her empathy and belief in community came from getting out and talking to people.
And it is my belief that if we did that a bit more, we’d all be living in happier, safer and more inclusive communities.
So, that where I’m most focused.
To remember Jo, on the 17 and 18th of June this year we’re asking everyone to do something very simple.
To get together with your neighbours, to share food and to celebrate what we have in common.
We hope that this moment, as well as remembering Jo, will start to bring communities closer together, to make connections between us that we can build upon.
I hope many of you here will take part in what we are calling the Great Get together (for more information please do go to our website greatgettogether.org).
To conclude, the threat of rising far right extremism is real and it isn’t going to go away quickly. But with resolution, a concerted attempt to reach out and a focus on building closer communities we can and we will defeat it.