Last Updated | Saturday, 12:15 p.m.
One day after a British lawmaker, Jo Cox, was assassinated by a constituent with a history of mental illness and support for white nationalist groups, who reportedly shouted “Britain First!” during the attack, the leaders of a fringe political party with that slogan for its name tried to dissociate themselves from the suspect by spreading misinformation about the accounts of eyewitnesses.
While the party’s claims were misleading and false — and the attacker subsequently removed all doubt about his political motivation by telling a judge on Saturday his name was “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain” — it is worth taking time to debunk them one by one. The reason to do so is that the far-right group’s efforts to obscure the truth of what is known about the brutal murder of a pro-Europe member of Parliament have been spread on social networks not just by its supporters, but also by activists across the political spectrum who agree with its desire to see Britain leave the European Union.
In a video message posted on Britain First’s social media channels on Friday, Jayda Fransen, the party’s deputy leader, disputed evidence that its name was shouted and falsely claimed that Cox, a former aid worker who was elected to Parliament last year, was not assassinated, but killed while trying to break up a fight between two men on a street in the Yorkshire town of Birstall.
Fransen, standing in front of a backdrop with the party’s slogan, “Taking Our Country Back,” based her claims on a selective and misleading account of what one witness to the attack, Hichem Ben Abdallah, told Sky News in the immediate aftermath. Ben Abdallah, who said that he missed the beginning of the attack and saw some of what unfolded from inside a nearby cafe, told reporters that it looked to him as if Cox had been acting as a peacemaker between the two men.
In fact, as the West Yorkshire Police’s acting chief constable, Dee Collins, told reporters on Friday, what Ben Abdallah witnessed was something different: an older man attempting to stop the attack on Cox by the suspect charged with her murder, Tommy Mair, 52. At a briefing, Collins said:
We have now confirmed that just before 1 p.m. yesterday, Jo arrived in a vehicle in company with two colleagues outside the library on Market Street and whilst en route to the library, where she had a scheduled constituency meeting, she was attacked and sustained serious injuries from both a firearm and a knife and, despite assistance from passers-by, the ambulance service, and police officers who were quickly on the scene, she sadly died of her injuries.
During the course of the incident, a 77-year-old man bravely intervened to assist Jo and in doing so sustained a serious injury to his abdomen and although now stable he remains in hospital.
After Mair appeared in court in London on Saturday, The Guardian reported that a Crown Prosecution Service summary revealed that the attacker told the arresting officers he was “a political activist,” and had shouted “a variation of ‘Britain first,’ ‘Keep Britain independent,’ ‘Britain always comes first,’ and ‘This is for Britain’ as he launched the attack on Cox.”
Despite Ben Abdallah’s admission that he saw only part of the attack and fled inside a cafe after the first shot was fired, the Britain First spokeswomen placed a lot of weight on the fact that this witness also said he had not heard the attacker shout her party’s name.
Fransen also drew attention to the fact that another early source for media reports that the party name was shouted, a dry cleaner named Aamir Tahir, had tried to clarify that he did not witness the attack himself but merely passed on to Sky News an account of what one of his coworkers told him she had heard.
On Friday, Tahir posted a sign in his shop window explaining that he was not present during the attack and was not the man injured trying to stop it, as Ben Abdallah had incorrectly suggested in his account.
Tahir also wrote, in somewhat unclear language, that no one in his shop had heard “Britain First” being shouted. (On this point, it is important to understand the location of Tahir’s dry cleaning business, which is about 100 yards away from the Birstall library across the square where the attack unfolded. That means that it seems entirely possible that someone working inside that shop could have heard gunshots being fired outside the library, but was not close enough to hear any shouting.)
What Fransen made no mention of was the account of another witness, Graeme Howard, who told The Guardian that he heard the attacker screaming as he shot and stabbed Cox and after he was detained by the police. “I heard the shot and I ran outside and saw some ladies from the cafe running out with towels,” Howard said. “He was shouting, ‘Britain First!’ when he was doing it and being arrested.”
Fransen did, however, refer to part of an interview with another witness, Clarke Rothwell, who told BBC Newsnight, “The words I heard him say was ‘Britain first,’ or ‘Put Britain first,’ I can’t say which exactly, what it were, but definitely, ‘Britain first’ is what he said when he was shouting — he shouted it at least twice.”
Rothwell, who owns a sports bar near the scene of the attack, was standing directly across the street from the library at a sandwich shop when the attack began and vouched for the fact that as Mair was shooting and stabbing Cox, onlookers tried to pull him away from her.
Fransen argued that since Rothwell said he was unsure whether the assassin had shouted “Put Britain first,” or “Britain First,” it was irresponsible for anyone to blame her party for inciting the attack.
What Fransen also failed to mention in her video was the reason many people were not surprised to hear reports that an assassin had shouted the party’s name during an attack on a pro-Europe member of Parliament. That is because of the deeply incendiary language Fransen and her colleagues have used about politicians like Cox, who supported immigration and extolled the benefits of Britain’s membership in the European Union.
To take a recent example, when her party leader, Paul Golding, announced that he would run for mayor of London late last year, Fransen wrote on Facebook that Britain First would take aim at its “pro-EU, Islamist-loving opponents.”
“They think they can get away with ruining our country, turning us into a Third World country, giving away our homes, jobs and heritage, but they will face the wrath of the Britain First movement, make no mistake about it!” Fransen threatened. She then went on to make clear how the party’s rivals would be treated.
“We will not rest until every traitor is punished for their crimes against our country,” she wrote. “And by punished, I mean good old fashioned British justice at the end of a rope!”
When Golding was trounced in that mayoral election, finishing with just 31,000 votes, more than 1.1 million behind the winner, Sadiq Khan, he expressed his rage by turning his back on London’s first Muslim mayor.
As several people have pointed out since the killing of Jo Cox, that sort of incendiary language from Britain First about politicians is common. In one statement, the group called members of the Labour Party Cox belonged to “traitors and criminals who deserve to be arrested and prosecuted for treason.”
In another, the party’s leader called for “direct action” against British Muslims who have been elected to office, calling them “occupiers” who must be “driven out of politics.”
Writing on the website of The Spectator, a British political magazine that has endorsed the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, Alex Massie argued that right-wing political parties that used such language to gin up fear and outrage risked pushing mentally fragile supporters over the edge. “When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged,” Massie wrote.
Massie also noted that a more mainstream party of the right, the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, had unveiled a new anti-EU poster on Thursday that described the threat of immigration as an existential one for Britain.
In his Spectator commentary on the attack that killed Jo Cox, Massie added:
When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks. When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don’t be surprised if someone takes you at your word. You didn’t make them do it, no, but you didn’t do much to stop it either.
As the British journalist Sunny Hundal noted on Friday, the UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, told BBC News just last month that it would be understandable that Britons opposed to staying in the European Union could turn to violence if they lost in the upcoming referendum on that issue.
Another journalist, James O’Brien, observed in a commentary for LBC radio on Friday that it was easy to imagine that someone who took seriously the rhetoric used by far-right parties in the lead-up to next week’s referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union could turn to violence.
Is it even vaguely possible that a man living in Britain today could be pushed to the brink of murder by political debate and the political situation? I don’t care where you come from, I don’t care who you vote for. Can you conceive of circumstances in which somebody living in Britain today could be pushed to a point where they contemplate this sort of conduct? I’m afraid to tell you that I can.
If I was to be reading my newspaper every single morning and be told that my very existence was under siege from people I’ve never met and never seen but keep getting told are coming here in their hordes. If I was to open my newspaper or turn on my radio or TV to hear that everybody who is coming here is a rapist and they’ve got their eyes on our women and we’ve got no chance whatsoever of protecting ourselves. And unless we do this or do that, or treat them like this or treat them like that, then we’re all doomed, we’re all going to hell in a handcart.
If I was being told it’s time to reclaim our country every time I got out of bed in the morning, I’d begin to believe it, I think, if I didn’t have the knowledge and the insights and the education to know that it is not true. We want our country back from whom? We want our country back from when?
In her video statement on Friday, the Britain First deputy leader also sought to deflect blame from her party by drawing attention to a 2010 report from a local newspaper in which the suspect, Tommy Mair, talked about his mental health issues. Describing the benefits of working as a volunteer at a park in Birstall, Mair told the Huddersfield Daily Examiner that the experience had “done me more good than all the psychotherapy and medication in the world.”
“Many people who suffer from mental illness are socially isolated and disconnected from society, feelings of worthlessness are also common mainly caused by long-term unemployment,” Mair told the newspaper. “All these problems are alleviated by doing voluntary work.”
Later on Friday, the party made another attempt to discredit the testimony of Clarke Rothwell, who said that he heard Mair use the words “Britain first” in some formulation during the attack. On Facebook, the party drew attention to a report from the right-wing site Breitbart U.K. that noted that Rothwell’s name appeared on a list published by WikiLeaks in 2009, said to be a membership directory of the British National Party, an ultranationalist group Britain First’s leader used to represent.
Rothwell did not reply to numerous requests for comment — but the theory that a member of one far-right nationalist group who witnessed such a killing at close range would instantly invent such a detail just to smear another group with very similar politics seems bizarre in the extreme.