As night fell on June 15, volunteers at the Birstall Wellbeing Centre in West Yorkshire were preparing for their usual Wednesday group session. The centre offers Reiki healing, palm readings and holistic massage. Rebecca Walker, who opened the centre eight years ago, is haunted by that night in June.
At about 6.30pm, a man in his 50s walked through the door. He was thin, on the short side and balding, with a greying goatee. Ms Walker had not seen him before. “He was enquiring about relaxation classes, meditation classes,” she recalls. “He’d tried it in the past and found it beneficial. He said he passed the centre every day and always wondered what it was about, and had only just had the courage to come in. He just seemed a really lonely guy who wanted someone to talk to.”
The centre is open to all comers. “A lot of people who come in here are soul-searching for some answers,” says Ms Walker. “They are grieving, depressed; they have illnesses.” She invited the man to join the group session. “He didn’t want a group session, he wanted a one-on-one. We arranged for him to come back Thursday lunchtime.”
The man did not keep the appointment. Instead, the following day he walked past the centre towards Birstall’s market square. There, he loitered for a while. He ate a Flake bar and dropped the wrapper in a bin. He was carrying a black holdall and a Tesco carrier bag and wearing a cream baseball cap.
At 12.50pm, a silver Vauxhall Astra pulled up outside the library just off the market square. Jo Cox, a self-declared “proud Yorkshire lass” who had been elected the local Labour MP the previous year, was in the back seat. The mother of two was due to meet constituents at the library.
As Cox and her two aides stepped from the car on to the pavement, the man in the baseball cap walked towards her. He produced a sawn-off .22 rifle and shot her in the head. She fell to the ground and he dragged her by the hair into the road, where he thrust a military-style dagger into her body again and again. Her aides, both local women, swung their handbags at him but he fended them off with his knife., Bernard Kenny, an elderly bystander, tried to intervene but staggered back when the man stabbed him in the stomach.
The attacker began to walk away, leaving Cox prone and bleeding. But when she showed she was still alive by speaking — “Get away you two,” she told the aides, “let him hurt me, don’t let him hurt you” — the man returned. He shot her twice more, in the head and chest, and tore into her again with his knife. Then he strode away.
Fazila Aswat, one of the aides, cradled her boss, urging her to think of her children and cling on. Ambulances arrived. A medic cut open her chest, to no avail. At 1.48pm, Cox was pronounced dead. She was 41.
Minutes earlier, police combing the area for the attacker had spotted the man a few streets away. They tackled him to the ground and arrested him. “I’m a political activist,” he declared. By then, television channels were breaking off coverage of the EU referendum campaign, which was entering its final week, to report that an MP had been attacked and a suspect detained. Before long, they had a name: Thomas Mair, a 52-year-old unemployed gardener from the council estate up the hill from Birstall.
Ms Walker recognised Mair instantly from his photograph on the TV. “It was a big shock for me,” she recalls. “You start to go through all the what-ifs. Could you have done something to help him if you had had more time?” Asked if the town has started to move on, Ms Walker shakes her head. “I think people have had to get back to some sort of normality but the fact that this happened to Jo on a sunny, busy, market day — that will stay with Birstall.”
Cox, a former policy chief at the charity Oxfam, had been a supporter of remaining in the EU and had advocated for greater compassion to be shown to Syrian refugees. She had also sought to address an “epidemic” of loneliness. As he killed her, Mair was heard to shout: “Britain first. Keep Britain independent. This is for Britain.”
After the murder, Nigel Farage, then leader of the UK Independence party and the unofficial champion of Brexit, said that Cox’s killing had halted the Leave campaign’s momentum. He was wrong. On June 23, 52 per cent of Britons voted to break with the EU. As the result became clear in the early hours, an ecstatic Mr Farage told supporters and cameras: “Today, honesty, decency and belief in nation, I think now is going to win. And we will have done it without having to fight, without a single bullet being fired.”
The earliest known expression of Mair’s political beliefs came in a February 1988 letter to Alan Harvey, the editor of SA Patriot, a South African magazine that railed against the imminent demise of white rule in the country. In small, precise script, Mair related that nationalists in Britain were on the ropes, maligned by the media and set upon by “mobs of Reds and Blacks”. “Despite everything, I still have hope that the White Race will prevail, both in Britain and South Africa,” he wrote, “but I fear it’s going to be a very long and very bloody struggle.”
In January 1997, three years after Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress had come to power, Mair wrote to Mr Harvey again, congratulating him for having “strongly condemned ‘collaborators’ in the White South African population”. Mair added: “In my opinion the greatest enemy of the old Apartheid system was not the ANC and the black masses but white liberals and traitors.”
Mair wrote those letters from the modest, semi-detached council house where he would live until the day he murdered Cox. His grandmother, who raised him, lived there too, until her death in 1996. Mair’s relationship with his mother appears to have been affected by his beliefs. One of her sons, Mair’s stepbrother, is mixed-race.
Even to his nearest neighbours on Lowood Lane, the man at number 86 was an enigma. Katie Greene, 33, a mother of three who lived next door to him for 13 years, called him a “real loner”. Her husband tried a couple of times to engage him in conversation, but Mair would answer in monosyllables, so he gave up.
Ms Greene thought Mair was depressed. He was, though, a “pleasant neighbour”, she recalls, who never complained when her boys clambered over the fence between their gardens to retrieve their ball. He would tend elderly residents’ gardens. A couple of evenings a week he would put on very loud music — “all kinds: rock, dance, a bit of pop”.
When the police smashed down Mair’s front door after his arrest, they found an orderly house with dated furniture, tins of baked beans stacked neatly in a cupboard, and, carefully arranged in a bookcase topped with a golden eagle emblazoned with a swastika, the library of a self-taught neo-Nazi.
A Collector’s Guide to Third Reich Militaria graced his shelves, as did Belt Buckles and Brocades of the Third Reich and Headgear of Hitler’s Germany, Volume 5. Mair studied killers (Jack the Ripper, the Boston Strangler), conspiracy theories (especially those questioning the Holocaust but also how Hollywood subliminally incites hatred of whites) and the assassination of liberal heroes such as Martin Luther King and John F Kennedy. Reinhard Heydrich aroused particular interest: Mair had several biographies of the senior Nazi who chaired the Wannsee Conference, at which the Final Solution was set in motion.
One book order Mair placed in 1999 offers a glimpse into the ideological company he kept. The seller was National Vanguard Books, the publishing arm of the National Alliance which, at the time, was the leading neo-Nazi group in the US. Its founder, William Pierce, had fired the imagination of white supremacists with his 1978 novel of race war, The Turner Diaries. The book describes the mass execution of “race traitors”, including Jews, homosexuals and politicians. Pages of it were found in the getaway vehicle Timothy McVeigh used after detonating a truck bomb that killed 168 people at a federal office building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organisation based in Montgomery, Alabama, has documented the National Alliance’s work extensively. After Cox’s murder, its staff searched its archives of leaked National Alliance records for Mair’s name and found orders for a dozen publications. Among them were the Improvised Munitions Handbook and Chemistry of Powder and Explosives. All told, Mair sent $620 to Pierce’s group, the SPLC calculated.
Pierce, who died in 2002, was a champion of pan-Aryanism, a belief in the transnational unity of whites against all others. Mair’s taste in reading — and the act that would define his life on a Birstall street in 2016 — suggest that he concurred with Pierce’s central judgment: that white supremacists would never come to power in a democratic system.
‘Not a joiner’
For Nick Griffin, Kirklees, the Yorkshire borough that includes Birstall, was “the jewel in the crown” of the British National party’s support. The Cambridge-educated former leader of the far-right group secured a string of European and local election successes in the first decade of this century by sidelining the likes of Mair and courting voters who would not consider themselves racist but were concerned about immigration. In the 2009 elections that marked the peak of Mr Griffin’s influence, the BNP — for years a fringe party associated with racist violence — won one in 10 votes in Yorkshire.
The area is a study in decline. Once-proud industrial mills are museums or shopping centres or stand derelict. In its heyday, the textile industry pulled in labourers from across the world, many from Pakistan. Since then, the widespread unemployment generated by the industry’s departure to Asia has served extremists well.
Mohammad Sidique Khan, 30, the leader of the 7/7 bombers who attacked London in July 2005, lived in Dewsbury, three miles from Birstall. So did 17-year-old Talha Asmal, until he travelled to Iraq, joined Isis and detonated a vehicle fitted with explosives last year.
The far right has also inspired Yorkshiremen to violence. In 2010, Terence Gavan, a bus driver and BNP member from Batley, was jailed for 11 years for assembling an armoury in his bedroom, including nail bombs and a booby-trapped cigarette packet. He had written in a notebook: “The patriot must always be ready to defend his country against enemies and their governments.”
Paul Mezsaros, a burly anti-fascist activist in the West Yorkshire city of Bradford, speaks with relish of his long years frustrating white supremacists. Poverty, he believes, invites manipulation. “Pockets of deprivation don’t recognise race. These people who are vulnerable and less educated and on the edge are exactly the people who will listen to simplistic explanations, whether it’s from some mad imam or the right.”
White and Asian groups clashed in the Bradford riots of 2001. Since then, Yorkshire has furnished the far right with two powerful recruiting tools. First, the area’s links to the 7/7 bombers. Second, revelations, initially suppressed by the Labour-run local authorities, that British-Pakistani men in the South Yorkshire town of Rotherham, and beyond, had systematically sexually abused white girls.
If Mair had been active in Yorkshire’s busy far-right scene, Mr Mezsaros reckons he would have known about it but he says the reclusive gardener was “not a joiner”. “He wasn’t on any list that I’ve seen.” Local far right activists concur. In any case, Mr Mezsaros adds, “Birstall doesn’t explain Mair.”
Mair is unlikely ever to be explained. He was silent through four hours of police interviews and chose not to take the stand at his Old Bailey trial. After he was convicted on Wednesday Mair asked to read a statement but the judge refused, saying he had relinquished his right to speak by not giving evidence in court.
Mr Mezsaros, who has spent decades up close with violent fascists, believes that what catalysed Mair’s long-held white supremacist beliefs into violence was the frenzied tenor of the EU referendum campaign.
Mr Mezsaros cites moments where taboos were broken. He singles out Mr Farage, who, hours before Cox’s murder, unveiled a poster with the words “BREAKING POINT” beside a snaking line of dark-skinned migrants that some likened to Nazi propaganda. Mr Mezsaros also upbraids the leaders of the official Leave campaign for comments that he says subtly injected race into the campaign, such as Boris Johnson’s attempt to dismiss Barack Obama’s support for the UK to remain in the EU by referring to him as the “part-Kenyan” US president. Since the referendum result, police statistics suggest, there has been a sustained rise in racist crime in the UK.
Cox campaigned energetically for the Remain campaign. On May 26, she used a local newspaper column to argue: “I know for many people that this is a tough decision, that the debate has been highly charged and the facts difficult to pin down. But I believe that the patriotic choice is to vote for Britain to remain inside the EU where we are stronger, safer and better off than we would be on our own.”
Kirklees mostly disagreed, voting 55 per cent in favour of Brexit.
Mair printed out the Cox column and filed it in a ring-binder that police found at his house. Nearby was a press cutting about Anders Breivik, the Norwegian far right terrorist who killed 77 people in 2011.
Two days after the murder, Mair appeared at Westminster magistrates’ court, where suspects in terrorism cases are brought. Asked to state his name, he said: “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”
View from the fringe
Mair offered no psychiatric defence at his trial, but most on the far right are keen to paint him as a lunatic. He gives a bad name to a project that has otherwise made strong progress this year: the march, across parts of the west, of far right ideas towards the acceptable commons of mainstream debate. The British right may be fractured, its recent electoral performances dismal, but its proponents display renewed optimism.
Mark Cotterill has made a life of far right politics. He served for a time as Nick Griffin’s man in the US. Based in Virginia, he got to know William Pierce and other leading American white supremacists. Back in Britain, he settled in Preston, long a bastion of far-right support, and won a local council seat in 2006 for his England First party.
Mr Cotterill says that the first he knew of Mair was when he heard him named on the news as Cox’s killer. He is, though, “surprised there haven’t been more Mairs — so many people want to do something”. Some former BNP supporters may have joined the 4m voters who backed Ukip at last year’s general election, but the party is not, Mr Cotterill believes, the true standard-bearer of British race-based politics. “Ukip speak with a false tongue,” he says. “They try to get our sort of people onboard but they are not going to do what our sort of people want.”
Those people might produce the next Mair. But they might also find themselves and their beliefs no longer on the fringes.
While far-right parties in Europe such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France and others in Austria, the Netherlands and even Germany have been dramatically expanding their support, their British counterparts are in disarray. Infighting and scandal consumed Mr Griffin’s BNP. Other groups have come sporadically to the fore, such as the anti-Islam street marchers of the English Defence League or Britain First, formed by remnants of the BNP but with limited impact. New hardcore groups have emerged, such as the North West Infidels, whose Twitter bio neatly summarises the extreme right’s diverse grievances: “Making a stand against radical Islam, Zionism, Communism, Irish Republicanism, paedophiles and the militant Left.”
The British electoral system makes it harder for fringe parties to win seats. However, Mr Cotterill and other far-right activists argue that the Brexit referendum has created a path back from the wilderness for them. The day after the vote, the BNP sent an email to supporters with the subject: “WE DID IT!” It declared: “Phones have been ringing off the hook at BNP HQ as scores of current members renew their membership and new members join the BNP following the incredible success of the Out of the EU campaign.”
That may be an exaggeration but 2016 has certainly accelerated a profound shift in the voting habits of working-class Britons. On this score, Mr Cotterill and Paul Mezsaros agree: if it can avoid its internecine tendencies, the far right could stand to benefit.
For generations, families would vote for one party; in the north of England, that was overwhelmingly Labour. A handful broke away to vote BNP in the noughties. Many more broke away to vote for Ukip, especially in European elections. Still more defied both Labour and the Conservatives to support Brexit, as a vote against the EU came to mean a vote against immigration and perhaps, for some, for a white Britain. With Ukip in post-referendum disarray, these voters’ allegiance is up for grabs.
Mr Mezsaros says of the right: “What knackers them is that they don’t have a leader and they have so many factions. They are like Heinz — 57 varieties. If they had one party and one leader I think we would be in trouble.”
Between June and November, while Mair awaited trial, events suggested the axis of the west was tilting to the right.
First came the Brexit vote. It was followed by such fervent desire in the rightwing press to resist any perceived betrayal of the popular will that, when three judges ruled that parliament should have a vote on the negotiations, the Daily Mail branded them “enemies of the people”.
Then, in October, Theresa May used her first Conservative conference speech as prime minister to declare that, “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. The day before, Amber Rudd, May’s replacement as home secretary, endorsed tougher rules on hiring foreigners and pledged to “put the interests of the British people first”.
By the time Mair’s trial opened, a reality TV star who launched his campaign by depicting Mexicans as rapists was preparing to move into the White House under the banner “America first”. President-elect Donald Trump chose as his strategist Steven Bannon, chief executive of Breitbart News, the online home of America’s white nationalists.
Each day in court eight at the Old Bailey, Cox’s parents took their seats and listened. Cox’s mother dried her eyes from time to time, especially after particularly detailed evidence of her daughter’s wounds. Her father remained stoic throughout in white short-sleeve shirt and tie.
Mair refused to enter a plea so, as is customary, the judge entered one of not guilty on his behalf. The jury heard how, in the weeks before June 16, he narrowed his Google searches from Heydrich and noted British fascists to Cox’s Wikipedia page and asking: “is a .22 round deadly enough to kill with one shot to a human head?”
Dressed in a navy suit, Mair looked out from the dock, impassive. On Wednesday, after an eight-day trial, the jury took less than 90 minutes to unanimously declare him guilty. The judge said Mair had killed Cox to seek to advance the cause of white supremacism. “You are no patriot,” he told Mair. “By your action you have betrayed the quintessence of our country: its adherence to parliamentary democracy.”
Mair will spend the rest of his life in prison. His name will appear in accounts of a momentous year. As he sits in his cell, perhaps he believes those histories will record how the nation in whose name he killed had inched closer to becoming the nation he wished it to be.