My meeting had been rumbustious, hurt and even anger expressed, as attempts were made to broker a settlement between a big developer and local businesses who were suffering. But I never felt threatened and therefore it was chilling to read what had happened.Every MP and MSP must have felt a similar shudder.
I never really knew David Amess. Having only been elected to Westminster in 2019 and with lockdown following on I’ve been limited to seeing him in the Chamber and passing him in the corridor. But he seemed an able and genial man, good humoured and with a touch of panache in the Chamber. What might be expected from someone who’d served so long and loved his job. His loss will be deeply felt by many.
Like every MP/MSP I’ve had the occasional threat including the “threat to life”. Not simply being a constituency representative but Justice Secretary doubtless ensured that. But Ministers whether in Holyrood or Westminster are rightly provided additional security. That’s as it should be as decisions and issues focus more upon them. During my tenure in office, I’ve had the police driving by on a regular basis and even an armed response vehicle parked outside, as well as a panic alarm provided. Thankfully nothing untoward happened though it can be difficult for family members. Its not normal and its disconcerting to say the least.
But every MP/MSP will have faced challenging situations whether in the street or in a surgery. In my own case I can say that I only really felt threatened on a couple of occasions. On each occasion it was from somebody who it quickly became obvious had severe mental health issues. Seeking to de-escalate the situation and gently ushering them out was the strategy. It’s the same situation that anybody working in a public facing job has endured. Whether a shop worker or a GP it’s a risk that goes with the work.
Will this tragedy change how elected representatives operate? Probably, there’ll be additional changes though many had come in after Jo Cox’s murder in 2016. Police advice and security advisors are available and to be fair the Speaker has been vigilant.
How surgeries are conducted will change but continue, they will. They’ve reduced as the age of Zoom and Teams has arrived. But some face to face meetings whether with individuals or groups as I was doing will always be required. Checks will increase but go ahead they must.
For every MP/MSP wants to retain contact with their constituents and be available to meet and help. It’s the most cherished part of the job and hugely satisfying. That cannot and will not be allowed to end. Security will increase but the solution must be to address the toxic culture we now have where abuse is viewed as normal, if not legitimate. Random threats on Twitter are pernicious and reaping tragedy.
Political debate and even discord is normal, political violence isn’t. It’s the political culture not politician’s public engagement that needs to change.
Kenny MacAskill is MP for East Lothian