Culture wars are “not just an ugly political phenomenon … they’re deeply dangerous”, Sayeeda Warsi has told the fifth annual Jo Cox memorial lecture at the University of Cambridge.
The lecture was set up to memorialise the Labour MP who was shot and stabbed in a politically motivated murder in 2016. Cox was struck while campaigning in her Yorkshire constituency during the European referendum campaign, in which she supported remain.
Speaking to a capacity audience at Pembroke College on “culture wars” and societal fault-lines, the former chair of the Conservative party said: “I’m increasingly of the view that culture wars are sapping our energies and stopping us from solving the real issues of the day.
“A divided country may help win elections but it doesn’t win a nation,” Lady Warsi added.
She recalled when, some years ago, Cox had reached across the political divide and suggested an event together. Describing Cox’s philosophy as in “stark contrast” to culture wars, she said Cox “achieved in 13 months in parliament what so many do not [at all]”.
Cox gained a place at Pembroke College in the 1990s, where she studied human, social and political studies. The memorial lecture was held in the Old Library, where a portrait of Cox by the artist Clara Drummond was later revealed in the hall by her sister and MP, Kim Leadbeater. Her husband, two children and parents were in attendance.
Combining her academic achievement with political experience, Cox was considered a rising star within the Labour party. In the Commons, she had established herself as a critic of the policy in Syria. She believed there was a lack of “moral compass” in British policy and described the approach as a “masterclass in how not to do foreign policy”. She also argued in favour of allowing more refugees into the UK.
“Culture wars in the end are a struggle to defend who we are,” said Warsi.
The lecture arrived at a time when much of the so-called “culture wars” was being inflamed by politicians, commentators and social media.
Boris Johnson has previously come under fire for inflaming culture wars from his former race adviser, Samuel Kasumu, who resigned because of the Conservatives pursuing a “politics steeped in division” and warned of another Cox tragedy should the government continue.
“There are some people in the government who feel like the right way to win is to pick a fight on the culture war and to exploit division,” Kasumu previously told the Guardian in an interview. “I worry about that. It seems like people have very short memories, and they’ve already forgotten Jo Cox.”
In the lecture, Warsi said what defines a nation is “deeper than flags and fanfare” and that the focus should not be on correcting past injustices or the toppling of statues such as in Bristol. “If you have a statue [of a person] who is controversial,” Warsi said, “leave them there but have a clear indication of who that person is.
“Let it stay, but let it stay honestly.”
Warsi added that while the UK had not hit as dark a phase as the US, which has recently experienced a capital riot and attempts to overturn elections, she added: “Sadly where the US goes on culture wars, the UK often follows.”
Cox’s killer, Thomas Mair, uttered the words “Britain first” and “keep Britain independent” as he carried out the attack. He was later given a life sentence for murder, possession of a firearm with intent to commit an offence, possession of a dagger and grievous bodily harm to a second victim.
The unemployed gardener, then 52, was alleged to have accessed online sites about Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, the Waffen-SS, Israel, matricide and serial killers in the days before she was killed. Nazi memorabilia and far-right books were later discovered in his home.
Mair was charged with Cox’s murder, possession of a firearm with intent to commit an offence, possession of a dagger and grievous bodily harm to a second victim, the passerby Bernard Carter-Kenny.
Cox was 41 and the MP for Batley and Spen when she died, and is survived by her two children and husband. In response to her death, Pembroke College alumni and students raised funds for a Jo Cox scholarship.
Warsi, a daughter of Pakistani immigrants, defected from the leave campaign in 2016, accusing it of “hate and xenophobia” just days before the referendum.
In a 2016 tribute to Cox, Warsi said: “It takes a certain kind of Labour politician to convince the ex-chairman of the Conservative party to share a platform with her weeks before the general election, and to praise her for the work that she was doing. But that was Jo; working above the fray, across the political divide.”
In 2021, the lecture was delivered by the former home secretary and chair of The Jo Cox Foundation, Jacqui Smith.