Why Britain doesn't play politics with gun tragedy

Prime Minister David Cameron pays tribute to Jo Cox
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Prime Minister David Cameron pays tribute to Jo Cox 01:36

Story highlights

  • Kate Maltby: Reeling in shock, Britain political rivals stood shoulder to shoulder to memorialize slain MP Jo Cox
  • In Orlando, Obama and Biden laid flowers for Orlando victims, while political rival McCain laid blame for attack on Obama
  • Maltby: Britain, unused to gun violence, don't immediately angle for political gain after a tragedy, unlike U.S..

Kate Maltby is a broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Times of London. Her website is www.katemaltby.com The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)It was lunchtime on a warm, dull Friday in the West Yorkshire village of Birstall, UK, when locals gathered for an unusual vigil. In the paved marketplace of this small northern town of 15,000, Prime Minister David Cameron stood in silent tribute to fallen colleague Jo Cox, a popular freshman representative of his rival Labour Party, who was gunned down Thursday in the heart of her constituency.

Cameron stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Leader of the Opposition, and with a bitter rival from his own party, Speaker of the Commons John Bercow, as the politicians laid bouquets in Cox's memory.
    It was a somber, awkward gathering, the swiftly arranged response of a political community unused to violence in its midst, particularly gun violence -- least of all when it takes the life of an elected representative.
    An ocean away -- and only a few hours earlier -- President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were also laying flowers in remembrance of victims of a gun attack. But there were no Republicans beside them in Orlando. Meanwhile Sen. John McCain -- much respected in Britain, as well as America -- was in Washington D.C. labeling President Obama "directly responsible" for Omar Mateen's weekend massacre at the Pulse nightclub, on the basis that his foreign policy failures had inspired terrorism.
    The optics of the two moments made for a stark contrast. U.S. officials keep the political protocol for gun tragedies in easy reach; the old patterns of claim, then counterclaim, are well-established. In Britain, there will in time be disputes about the political backdrop to this tragedy, but there is no playbook for an immediate slanging-match on gun ownership.
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    Corbyn and Cameron stood side-by-side Friday because there was no question that they would do otherwise. Britain doesn't have a ready ritual for the politicization of violence -- at least not the violence of political assassination. It hardly ever happens.
    Brits like to tell American friends about their low rates of gun violence -- to some, Cox's murder will be a statistical embarrassment. But it is an anomaly. Cox, 41 and with two young children, was the first member of Parliament to be murdered in office since Conservative Ian Gow in 1990; if we exclude the specific terror campaign of the IRA, she is the first since the Second World War.
    No UK premier has been shot since Spencer Perceval in 1812. School shootings have been non-existent since a likely pedophile massacred 16 children and their teacher in 1996 in the village of Dunblane, now happier to be known as the home of tennis star Andy Murray.
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    Major gun control laws were enacted shortly afterwards, including a ban on all except certain sporting handguns and antiques. The legislation was largely bipartisan, sponsored first by Conservative Prime Minister John Major, then followed through by his Labour successor Tony Blair in 1997.
    It helped that gun sports are perceived as an elite pursuit in the UK. The Queen's husband, Prince Philip, alienated many when he publicly opposed the ban, sounding like an NRA spokesman when he insisted that "if a cricketer, for instance, suddenly decided to go into a school and batter a lot of people to death with a cricket bat which he could do very easily, I mean, are you going to ban cricket bats?"
    The status of the gun that killed Jo Cox will soon become a hot topic; early eyewitness reports suggest "an old-fashioned-looking" gun. (Unlike Omar Mateen's semi-automatic Sig Sauer MCX, it could only kill one person at a time.)
    That is the context in which the gathering of political rivals — one apparently not possible under similar circumstances in the U.S.-- made perfect sense on this sad Friday in Britain. Privately, David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn despise each other, perhaps more so than Obama and the often cross-partisan McCain. Cameron gives every impression of considering Corbyn, the retro socialist who upset the 2015 Labour leadership race with a Bernie Sanders-style insurgency, to be a self-righteous drip.
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    And Corbyn hails from the branch of the Labour Party which views the capitalist Conservative Party as not misguided but immoral, especially when it's led by Old Etonians.
    But while their visit Friday signaled harmony, veteran observers could detect the slightest smoke signals of difference. During the ceremony, the Conservative politicians, Bercow and Cameron, spoke of the importance of defending "free speech," signaling a Tory unwillingness to ban hate-speech in the wake of violence.
    Corbyn focused more on "freedom of political expression," a term often used by leftist activists to refer to the right to unionize, or of the disenfranchised to stand for office without fear of intimidation. Both have warned in the aftermath of Cox's slaying about the dangers of toxic political rhetoric, and loyalist journalists associated with both have already penned columns blaming the other side for Britain's political malaise.
    In some respects, true, the broader politicisation of this act has already begun. The man charged in the killing, Tommy Mair, appears to have had a history of mental illness, but was he inflamed by the violent rhetoric around the upcoming referendum on EU membership? (Possibly. Cox was a supporter of the campaign to remain in the EU. A white working-class woman, she was a passionate supporter of migrant rights.)
    Should we be labeling this an act of terrorism? (Probably, given that Mair seems to have been in touch with Neo-Nazi websites in both Britain and America, and to have spent a fortune on their literature.) Can a killer be mentally ill, and still politically motivated? (Obviously.)
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    And Britain, like America, is haunted by the fear of Islamic terrorism. The Left has already seized on Mair's purported white-supremacist background to complain about the Right's "anti-Muslim paranoia;" the Right in turn is arguing that there's a difference between a lone gunman and a sustained political threat. (True, but white fascists can be sustained political threats, too.) Again, American readers will find familiar echoes from Orlando.
    But in the main, the focus in Britain has remained on the victim, Jo Cox, who served only 13 months as a British MP, but whose prior career had seen her move between senior Labour staffer jobs and high-powered humanitarian lobbying, most prominently as head of policy for the major poverty charity, Oxfam.
    Her opponents know that her loss strikes at the heart of the Labour family. After the killing, with tear-stained cheeks, Sarah Brown, wife of former PM Gordon Brown, paid tribute to her former adviser; Neil Kinnock, a previous leader, spoke of her as akin to "a beloved niece."
    The politicians are playing nice with each other, for now. It's not because they're morally superior to their U.S. counterparts. But here in Britain, they just don't know how the post-assassination game is played.