The brutal murder of Jo Cox, a Labour Party member of the British Parliament, shocked a conflicted nation and the onlooking world. But while her death Thursday in the northern English town of Birstall has captured much of the media’s focus in the last few days, we’d like to take a look at her too-short life and her life’s work.
Cox was born in the West Yorkshire town of Heckmondwike to working-class parents and became the first in her family to obtain a higher education. She recounted her time at Cambridge University as an eye-opening experience in which she began to understand the strongly defined British class differences. While Cox spent her summers working at a toothpaste factory in Leeds with her father, her classmates spent their time traveling and networking, she explained in a recent interview with the Yorkshire Post.
“I never really grew up being political or Labour. It kind of came at Cambridge where it was just a realisation that where you were born mattered, that how you spoke mattered … who you knew mattered. I didn’t really speak right or knew the right people. … To be honest, my experience at Cambridge really knocked me for about five years.”
She excelled academically at Cambridge despite daunting beginnings, and went on to work as a political adviser to several female politicians, including Glenys Kinnock, former member of the European Parliament and wife of Neil Kinnock, former leader of the Labour Party, who quoted the British poet Shelly in his tribute to Cox, calling her “a day-star of the age.”
Cox joined the international charity Oxfam in 2002, where for seven years she held positions as head of the European Union office, head of policy and advocacy, and, finally, head of humanitarian campaigning. Then she worked until 2011 as director of the Maternal Mortality Campaign alongside Sarah Brown, a British campaigner for global health and education. She also campaigned for Save the Children and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, chaired the Labour Women’s Network, and served as an adviser to the Freedom Fund on slavery, as well as to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
When elected in 2015 as the member of Parliament to represent Batley and Spen, the constituency where she grew up, she said in her first speech before her peers that she couldn’t be prouder to be “made in Yorkshire” and part of a diverse community that had welcomed immigrants from disparate parts of the world. Never losing her northern accent as a testament to her roots, Cox was described in tributes as a “lion” in Parliament, while more personal accounts highlighted her adventurous flair, such as her realizing she was pregnant with her first child while climbing on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. In London, rather than live in an expensive home, she and her husband, Brendan, who works for the United Nations, lived with their two young children on a converted barge, said to be the site of numerous parties and women-only MP gatherings.
A progressive and a feminist, Cox fought hard for any cause that inspired her, and during her short 15 months in Parliament, she dedicated much of her time to the plight of Syrian refugees, especially the children. Cox was co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Syria, and a speech she made to Parliament in April about allowing 3,000 unaccompanied Syrian children to enter the United Kingdom shows just how passionate she was about the crisis:
The Labour MP also campaigned for Britain to remain in the European Union. This was highlighted when accounts of her death reported that the man charged with her murder shouted “Britain First” while killing her. The issue of “Brexit,” as Britain’s possible EU exit is nicknamed in the media, has fueled a nasty strain of nationalism in the U.K. that had been bubbling beneath the surface. “Britain First” is the name of a far-right political party that has campaigned heavily for the U.K. to leave the European Union, with arguments based in xenophobia and hatred toward those perceived as outsiders. Thomas Mair, it was discovered after he allegedly stabbed and shot Cox outside a library where she’d met with constituents, had purchased a homemade gun from a neo-Nazi group. Many see her slaying as the nadir of the tense ongoing Brexit debate, which The Guardian described in an editorial on Cox’s death:
We are in the midst of what risks becoming a plebiscite on immigration and immigrants. The tone is divisive and nasty. … Here was the MP whom the citizens of Batley and Spen had entrusted to represent them, fresh from conducting her duty to solve the practical problems of those same citizens in a constituency [meeting]. To single her out, at this time and in this place, is to turn a gun on every value of which decent Britons are justifiably proud.
Jo Cox, however, was not just any MP doing her duty. She was also an MP who was driven by an ideal. The former charity worker explained what that ideal was as eloquently as anyone could in her maiden speech last year. “Our communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration,” she insisted, “be it of Irish Catholics across the constituency or of Muslims from Gujarat in India or from Pakistan, principally from Kashmir. While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
After Cox’s murder, all campaigns regarding the EU referendum were put on hold, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel pleaded with British politicians to moderate their rhetoric, since their often inflammatory language has clearly stirred hatred rather than the type of humanitarian solidarity Cox worked her whole adult life to promote.