It’s hard to over-emphasize the sense of raw shock in Britain at the murder Thursday of Jo Cox. A Labour Party MP with a track record of pro-refugee and human rights campaigning, Cox was both stabbed and shot while meeting the public in her northern English constituency, dying in hospital shortly after. In a country where guns are strictly controlled (the murder weapon appears to have been homemade), a much-liked politician dying in this way seems fantastical, unreal.
There’s more to Britain’s shock than this horrific incident alone, however. The country has been on a knife-edge for months in the run-up to next week’s Brexit referendum, which will decide whether the U.K. will leave or remain in the European Union. Cox, a vocal pro-Remain advocate, was killed by a local man with links to U.S. neo-Nazi groups and, before attacking Cox, allegedly shouted either “put Britain first” or “Britain First”—the name of a racist, extreme-right political party campaigning, among other things, for Britain to leave the E.U. While some in the Leave camp have tried to paint Cox’s murder as the work of a mentally unstable loner and nothing more, the clear political background behind the attack has inevitably pushed a referendum campaign so far marked by anger and farce into the realms of tragedy.