Unless we assign every politician a 24-hour security detail they remain vulnerable - Euan McColm
It’s entirely understandable that the killing of Conservative MP Sir David Amess has prompted immediate calls for the security of politicians to be reviewed.
Coming just five years after Labour’s Jo Cox was murdered in her constituency, the fatal attack on Amess reopened wounds in Westminster that had barely healed.
The anguish of politicians across the spectrum in the hours after Amess's death was palpable. Of course, they felt the pain of the sudden and unnecessary loss of a friend and workmate. More than that, the 69-year-old MP’s colleagues were united in the knowledge that any one of them could have met a similar fate as they carried out their constituency surgeries on Friday.
Amess, himself, was alert to this risk. He published a book - Ayes & Ears, A Survivor’s Guide to Westminster - last year in which he wrote about Cox’s murder, describing how she had been attacked “in the most barbaric fashion imaginable”.
The impact of Cox’s murder, he wrote, was that most MPs changed the way they interacted with voters. Attacks on politicians had, he added, “spoilt the great British tradition” of the voters meeting politicians.
In a section of the book on the 2000 machete attack in the office of Nigel Jones which resulted in the death of aide, Andy Pennington, Amess wrote, “It could happen to any of us”.
In the circumstances, Home Secretary Priti Patel’s order to police forces to review the security of MPs seems entirely reasonable.
And, perhaps, that review will identify areas where improvements may be made. Perhaps there are some practical steps to be taken that will make politicians safer during their dealings with the public.
But, let’s be realistic. Of course, we all want our elected members to be able to do their jobs free from the risk of violence but it’s not entirely clear how that objective may be completely achieved.
Some have called for police to be present when elected members hold advice surgeries for constituents. This seems a reasonable demand, right now.
But this will not, I think, become the norm. There are, across Westminster and the Scottish, Welsh and Irish parliaments, 929 elected members. We know that police forces across the UK have been dealing with cutbacks for years. How on earth forces could provide police support for every parliamentarian is a mystery.
And even if chief constables across these islands could find the manpower to station officers in every constituency meeting in the land, what about the times when surgeries aren’t taking place? Aren’t politicians and their staff vulnerable at those times, too?
And what about the thousands of councillors across the UK who regular hold advice sessions for voters? Do we envisage a scenario where parliamentarians are deemed worthy of protection but those who serve in local government are not?
The truth is that if someone is determined to kill a politician, they will find their moment and try. Unless we assign every politician a 24-hour security detail, they remain vulnerable.
Some have spoken about the tone of our politics, suggesting that aggressive verbal attacks on opponents might have helped create the circumstances in which someone might decide to kill a politician.
Well, five years ago we were told that the legacy of Jo Cox’s death would be a kinder politics. MPs from across the House of Commons quoted Cox’s maiden parliamentary speech where she declared that more united MPs than divided them. Warm words of comradeship dripped like honey.
But has the tone of our politics changed? Not one iota. Every major party is guilty of othering opponents. All of them promised to do better after Cox’s death and all of them have failed.
A better quality of debate, with fewer personal attacks and a stronger focus on substantive issues would be a fine thing, indeed, but politics is - and had always been - the roughest of games.
David Amess’s death is a heartbreaking tragedy and an affront to our democracy, Of course we want it to mean something. Of course, we want to say, at the very least, it was the turning point at which our politics began to become better.
No number of platitudes will bring about that change.
In the aftermath of terrorist attacks, our political leaders tell us that the best possible response is to carry on as normal. Rather than bending to the will of the extremist, we should make the most of the freedoms they’d take from us.
This, I think, is sound advice. We should heed it now.
Understandably, Amess’s colleagues may feel that simply carrying on as before is too risky but that’s what he did after colleagues were attacked and killed in the course of their work.
Amess - as countless friends and colleagues have said over recent hours - was a dedicated constituency MP whose priority was the people who put him in parliament. He was proud to represent the voters of Southend West and it was, he believed, crucial that they should have access to him when they needed.
There is something gently noble about this old-fashioned dedication to public service. We should remember that, although the behaviour of some senior politicians may anger us, parliaments across the UK are populated by men and women driven by the same desire to help others that sustained David Amess’s 40-year career.
In my experience, most politicians are, decent, honourable, well-intentioned people who work very hard. That these people should be at risk of violence simply because they tried to make a difference is bleak, indeed.
Perhaps a realistic legacy of this latest tragedy would be for us to think a little more about the sacrifices people make in order to stand for election and the relentless pressure they endure once in office.
David Amess was one of hundreds of men and women who keep our democracy alive. We owe them thanks. And we owe them respect.
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.
If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.