One of the ideas in group relations is that we are all in various groups, and sometimes what we do makes most sense if it is seen in the context of the group. It’s possible to push that too far, but it can be a helpful way of looking.
What goes with this is an idea that, when there is pressure on a group, someone eventually acts in a way that addresses it. This isn’t necessarily a great leader. In fact is often the weakest member of the group — their weakness meaning they are least able to resist the pressure of the whole group.
As a mundane example, a while back I was on a late-night train, where people were interrupted by a “replacement bus service”. We were all annoyed. One person was obnoxious to the railway staff. Was he the person who was putting into words what we all felt? Was our embarrassment at his bad language also embarrassment at the language we were tempted to use?
This way of thinking flags up a concern about how we respond to terrorists. If they are the unstable extreme of the community from which they come, then acting against the whole community actually increases the strain and makes terrorists more likely.
In the case of Thomas Mair, his story has played in different ways. Some have focussed on his far-right links, others on his mental health.
Among Remain supporters people have picked up the links to Britain First. Witnesses report that he either said “put Britain first” or “Britain First”: the first sounds xenophobic, and the second links to a far right group. The link to the far right seemed obvious, even before the police found evidence when they searched his home.
This is not to say that Britain First, or any other pro-Brexit group engaged him as an assassin. It is to say that, within that world, there are people who act out what others are thinking, making him an extreme example. In that connection, Remain supporters have quoted a video if Nigel Farage seeming to advocate violence.
In Brexiteer social media there was a story that there was just one witness, who was a member of the BNP, which makes them easy to discredit and ignore, safely distancing Britain First from Mair. A hole was put in that by his committal hearing, where he gave his name as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. Much was made of his poor mental health.
Yet someone with poor mental health might well be mobilised to kill when others just think of killing, so that is a weak defence for the Brexit world.
People from the Leave side have pointed out that that video with Nigel Farage is part of longer clip, as if that diminishes his words, but the longer clip is hardly less worrying.
The strong implication is that people are struggling to own the horror of Mair’s actions, but they give a sense of the mentalities being mobilised.
The tragedy of this is that the European Coal and Steel Community, from which the EU has grown, was set up to put the raw materials of mid-twentieth century warfare outside national control. That seems both a pragmatic and an idealistic assessment of human nature. For me it acknowledges that, for all our achievements, Western European culture has also been responsible for some grim behaviour (think colonialism and world wars), but we do have a choice not to repeat that, which is part of the idealism of the EU &151; building a genuinely better future. But there are some dark forces to contain, not least in the UK, perhaps the real lesson of Mair’s behaviour is that they are closer to the surface than we care to admit, which, for me, is all the more reason to stand with our European partners in full membership of the EU.