In his book Ayes & Ears: A Survivor’s Guide to Westminster, published last November, David Amess wrote: “The British tradition has always been that members of parliament regularly make themselves available for constituents to meet them face to face at their surgeries.” It was through such encounters that Mr Amess took up many of the causes he championed, such as better treatment of the debilitating condition endometriosis, and animal rights. But on 15 October he paid with his life as he hosted a constituency surgery in his home town of Leigh-on-Sea, Essex.
Mr Amess’s killing would be harrowing enough in isolation. But it forms part of a pattern. A week before the EU referendum in 2016, Jo Cox, a Labour MP and Remainer, was murdered by a far-right activist on her way to her own constituency surgery in Birstall, West Yorkshire. Before this, in 2010, Stephen Timms, also a Labour MP, was stabbed by an Islamist extremist while holding a surgery in east London. The Liberal Democrat aide Andrew Pennington was killed in 2000 as he sought to protect the MP Nigel Jones from a man trying to attack him with a sword.
In this climate of violence and fear, it is unsurprising that, as the former justice secretary Robert Buckland tells Tim Ross on page 16, some MPs are contemplating standing down. “It does cause you to question, why am I putting myself and my family through this?”
It is a question that many politicians have had cause to ask. In recent days, the former Labour MP Paula Sherriff has spoken of how police “laughed” after she reported a death threat left on her voicemail, and took “several weeks” to view CCTV of somebody leaving foil swastikas at her constituency office in Dewsbury.
The murder of Jo Cox was supposed to mark a turning point. Yet in the years since her death too little has changed. After the killings of the MPs Airey Neave in 1979 and Anthony Berry in 1984 by the IRA, extra security measures were introduced, respectively, at the Palace of Westminster and at party conferences. But there has been no comparable change to MPs’ surgeries, with no advance security checks or police presence.
To stem the tide of abuse against elected politicians, wider social and cultural reform is needed. For too long, the tech giants have profited from the threats directed at MPs on social media and have sought to evade responsibility for what is published on their platforms. The discourse on social media is rancid and hyper-polarised; anything goes because the companies refuse to pay for moderators and their algorithms reward abuse and performative outrage.
This must change. Rather than being treated as “platforms”, they should be regulated as publishers (as traditional media is) and subject to libel laws. As Barack Obama observed in an interview last year: “They are making editorial choices, whether they’ve buried them in algorithms or not.” Why else was Donald Trump banned from using Twitter and Facebook? His exclusion was an editorial decision. The tech giants should no longer enjoy the privileges of publishers without the costs.
Yet if MPs are to foster a more tolerant political culture, they must lead by example. Robust and fierce disagreement is an essential component of British democracy. As George Orwell observed: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” In recent years, however, MPs have too often abused and dehumanised their opponents. Conservatives are referred to as “Tory scum”; judges as “enemies of the people”. When elected MPs (and national newspapers) use such debased language, it is unsurprising that voters are moved to commit far worse acts.
In the days since Mr Amess’s death, politicians from all sides have spoken of their admiration for him and the sacrifices he and others made in the service of democracy. But it should not have taken his death to unite the House of Commons.
In her maiden parliamentary speech in 2015, Jo Cox spoke of how “we have far more in common than that which divides us”. Such sentiments are recalled at moments of tragedy, but then too little changes. If MPs are to honour Mr Amess, so brutally killed after a lifetime’s service to the public, this time must be different.
This article appears in the 20 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the West