In a time rife with political resentment and distrust over Brexit and the mishandling of the Covid pandemic, it is hard to imagine public opinion ever favouring an increase to the privileges of our MPs. However, the recent and shocking murder of the Conservative MP Sir David Amess has provided a stark reminder of how vulnerable our representatives really are. On the 15th October the MP for Southend West was fatally stabbed whilst attending his weekly constituency advice surgery at Belfairs Methodist Church in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. Amess was pronounced dead at the scene and the preliminary post-mortem report attributed the cause of death with multiple stab wounds to the chest. Amess now joins the melancholy ranks of numerous other MPs who have been attacked whilst doing their democratically elected jobs and interacting with their constituents.
The nature of a life in politics puts MPs in the spotlight and often makes them recognisable targets and scapegoats for broader political failures and mishandlings within Westminster and indeed British society as a whole. Furthermore, social media has allowed ordinary citizens to engage in a direct dialogue with their elected representatives. Twitter, as the platform of choice, gives people unlimited and immediate access to express discontent and dissatisfaction towards their elected representatives. However, this often descends into a Twitter bloodbath, under the false guise of political accountability. Following the death of Sir David Amess, the SNP MP for Glasgow North West has said that both MPs and MSPs have become the focal point for people’s anger and blamed social media for intensifying this divide between the public and political figures. She claimed that social media had ‘emboldened’ people to make threats and questioned why MPs should have to accept the abuse as being “part of the job”. However, such fierce hate speech is not just limited to the cyber realms of social media, it also exists within Westminster itself. The Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner has issued an apology after calling the Conservative MP Chris Clarkson “scum” after he accused the opposition of opportunism over Covid restrictions. It is arguably difficult to expect the general public to behave with tolerance and civility towards representatives if the same is not given within their own parliamentary ranks. During an interview on Good Morning Britain, the speaker of the House of Commons Sir Lindsay Hoyle stated that in the wake of Sir David Amess’s murder, political differences should never be allowed to morph into anger and hate. He also challenged the media to stop demonising politicians and rather work in harmony towards better politics for the people.
Moving away from the ideologically fuelled hate speech and towards the ubiquitous question of MP security, Sir David Amess’s death has raised concerns about whether the threat of terrorism might begin to seriously deter politicians from continuing their jobs, and therefore pose a serious threat to the fundamental element of our democracy. It should also be acknowledged that it will be the MPs with constituency work and not those serving in security protected ministerial jobs, which will be discouraged from continuing. This would widen the overall distance between politics and the people, essentially diluting the effectiveness of our democracy. Parliament itself shows a visual display of security and protection through patrolling armed police and security passes. That being said, an armed attacker was still able to breach the perimeter and fatally injure PC Keith Palmer in March 2017. However, MPs are most exposed to danger during their duties in constituencies. This is because it puts them in face-to-face contact with constituents away from the security of Westminster. This is an essential part of their job and the advice they provide at surgeries ensures the democratic process checks in with the people it is designed to benefit.
A plan called Operation Bridger was introduced in 2016 following the murder of Jo Cox at her Yorkshire constituency and designed to increase the safety of MPs whilst carrying out their constituency based duties. This plan was designed to involve both the police and parliamentary authorities in a nationwide police protection security programme. Subsequently, MPs are now given a single point of contact at their local police force to provide advice, as well as having panic buttons installed at home and in their offices. Home Secretary Priti Patel has recently suggested some measures MPs could take in order to reduce the risks whilst engaging with constituents. These include booking appointments in advance, checking individual details in advance of meetings, as well as scouting locations. However, the shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy has argued that while these precautions may be suited to urban constituencies, these are far harder to implement for MPs who reside over very large rural constituencies, and could result in some constituents being left out of reach. Sir Lindsay Hoyle has also acknowledged that while MPs were prevented from holding surgeries during the height of the pandemic, in the wake of this terrorist act MPs should not be blasé about their own personal security and should be encouraged to make use of the measures that have been designed to keep them safe. There can be many ways to ensure the safety of MPs whilst during their constituency work, but the threat can very easily move to another part of their life. An MP can as easily be attacked whilst out shopping or walking their dog, as they can when interacting directly with the public. There has been discussion around sourcing bodyguards for MPs but issues of funding have been raised as well as the practicalities of relatively ordinary members of society having their daily lives severely hindered. There is clearly a balance to be found and difficult judgements to be made around whether face to face meetings should be conducted until the investigation is over. However it is certain that British politics cannot withstand any more watershed moments like these regarding the safety of our MPs.
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