The link between an MP and their constituents lies at the very heart of British democracy. Direct access to the people and their problems not only serves those voters, it also serves the politicians. So the murder of Sir David Amess is even more terrible for coming as he met with locals at a regular MP’s surgery held in a church hall. To borrow a phrase, he was killed in the line of duty.
The tributes to Amess, a widely liked Conservative MP famed for his devotion to his constituents, will remind voters that so much of an MP’s work takes place away from the theatrics of the Commons, in routine efforts to help those they serve. Aside from his campaigns for Southend, Amess was known for his work for special needs children.
Inevitably his death must raise new questions about how to protect politicians. For while his murder is shocking, it is sadly less of a shock than it should be. He is the fourth MP to endure a murderous assault in their constituency in the last 20 years. In each case the attacker took advantage of the predictability of knowing their MPs would be at the specific location, holding a regular political surgery. Jo Cox was killed in the street in 2016 on her way to such an event. Stephen Timms was lucky to survive being stabbed twice at a surgery in 2010 and in 2000 Nigel Jones was wounded in a samurai sword attack which cost the life of his aide Andrew Pennington.
There have also been plots foiled. Two years ago a neo-Nazi was jailed for planning to kill the Labour MP Rosie Cooper. Others have received death threats which the police take seriously. This is not unique to Britain. Many will recall the attempted murder of the US congresswoman Gabby Giffords at a “Congress on your corner” event in 2011. Six others were killed at the scene.
The first consequence of this killing is that security will have to be tightened around MPs, as it was after the murder of Jo Cox. Even before this incident spending on MPs’ security measures has risen substantially but barring constant close protection, it is not possible to safeguard politicians at all times. Many live locally and are routinely seen around the constituency. But more police protection at the scheduled and advertised surgeries must be a given. Even this is not simple as surgeries are not always in the same place but are moved around, especially in large seats. Nevertheless it must be done and the cost must be borne. Nothing less than the character of British democracy is at stake.
Some MPs have suggested abandoning face-to-face meetings for Zoom calls. Those with particular reason for fear must be allowed to do this but much will be lost if it becomes standard.
The killing reminds us of a second point which is the abuse politicians direct at each other. While there is nothing to suggest it is relevant to this case — which is being treated as a terrorist incident — the venomous language used by too many MPs in recent years has heightened the climate of abuse and fear.
All sides are to blame. Brexiters referred to some Remainers as traitors; Labour’s deputy leader recently called Tory leaders “scum”. Such rhetoric is not new; in 1948, Aneurin Bevan called Tories “lower than vermin”. But in the current climate of intense polarisation such hyperbolic language — the Twitterisation of debate — contributes to an atmosphere which leaves MPs feeling less safe. MPs ought to be able to disagree without inflammatory abuse.
Perhaps the most useful tribute to Amess, who conducted his politics with a smile on his face, would be for politicians on all sides to work harder to dial down the rhetoric of rage.