I only met David Amess properly once, early in my career, when I decided, for reasons passing understanding, that an excellent way to break the ice with a senior parliamentarian was to emulate his famous election-winning celebration.
Amess – whose wide grin, arms aloft, became one of the defining images of the 1992 contest when he held the marginal seat of Basildon – reacted to my strange behaviour with good grace. He gave me some useful pointers about how to approach covering parliament and the inner life of the Conservative Party. He did not say so, but I think we can take it as read that introducing yourself by copying something you’ve seen on a BBC election rerun is not, in general, a good tactic for a young journalist.
Although we didn’t speak much after that, my experience of him was fairly typical. A number of similarly nervous new MPs have, over Amess’s long career in parliament, been grateful for his guidance and generosity.
Amess’s warmth is one reason MPs are so shell-shocked at the news of his death. While there are plenty of committed Brexiteers with socially conservative views in parliament, few of them have so many friends and admirers across the House. That it coincides with the death of James Brokenshire, the former secretary of state for Northern Ireland and another MP renowned for small kindnesses, means that Conservative MPs in particular have found the week following Amess’s death a trial. But the killing of one of their number, particularly a well-liked one, is disturbing for politicians in all parties.
MPs and elected officials know that they face a greater threat to their well-being than they would in other roles. The most frequent problem I hear about is stalking, in large part because MPs’ constituency caseloads bring them into frequent contact with people who are experiencing one form of crisis or another. Politicians are also at the front line of the United Kingdom’s battle with terrorism.
At present, the major terrorist threats facing the country come from jihadists and the far right. Jo Cox, the MP for Batley and Spen, was assassinated by a neo-Nazi in 2016, and the following year parliament came under direct attack from a jihadist who used a knife and a car as weapons.
Most politicians enjoy the company of others, and consider being out and about in their constituency a key part of the job. Sadiq Khan, who has 24-hour police protection, takes the Tube when possible – he thinks it is important to use the service that he runs. When Theresa May became home secretary in 2010, she disliked no longer sharing with her constituents a commuter train from London to Maidenhead, as she had done for 13 years.
But the attack on Amess is a reminder of the risks MPs take in fulfilling their duties, and the burden they place upon their families. MPs with young children struggle to explain Amess’s death and the implications for them, while others have been reminded of the strain it puts on their spouses and parents. One MP wistfully pointed out to me that her son was spending his early twenties worrying about his mother’s safety: “Isn’t that meant to be the other way round?”
The security threat also takes a direct toll on MPs’ office staff. These assistants, researchers and secretaries are the ones who usually have to sift through emails and correspondence to make sure they aren’t missing anything that should be brought to the attention of the authorities.
Proposals floated by some MPs include banning anonymity online. It’s an idea that emanates, understandably, from the stress and anxiety caused by having to decide whether a particular message about immigration is the beginning of a worrying pattern, or whether a social media rant about faith schools should be forwarded to the police. The reality is that there isn’t much correlation between the abusive messages that MPs often receive and the violent physical threat they face from jihadists and the far right. What they do have in common, though, is that they now both originate online.
Long-serving parliamentarians will be able to point out the pub in their constituency with a history of association with far-right groups. Now, the radicalisation journey predominantly takes place not in easily monitored physical spaces but in the more nebulous digital sphere.
Most terrorist attacks across Europe are not what the security services describe as “directed”, in the sense that atrocities such as the World Trade Center attacks were orchestrated and devised in a headquarters halfway across the world. Instead, they are “inspired”: assaults thought up in a bedroom – usually, in Britain’s case, by UK nationals who have been radicalised online or in prison. Banning online anonymity, however, would not tackle the problem, and, in any case, is beyond the reach of the British government or modern technology.
That leaves politicians with a much more difficult challenge: how to remain open to their constituents – to live side-by-side with their voters instead of retreating behind walls of glass and steel – in a world in which the threat of lone wolves cannot ever be fully eliminated, and in which MPs take great risks simply by doing their jobs.
This article appears in the 20 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the West