We must do more to protect our MPs

16 October 2021

10:59 PM

16 October 2021

10:59 PM

Sir David Amess’s backstory tells you much about his commitment to constituency politics that led to his cruel murder yesterday. He was born and grew up in a terraced house in London’s East End. There was little money. His dad was an electrician, his mother a tea lady and seamstress. In short they were not born into privilege and were exactly the kind of people who might visit an MP’s constituency surgery on a Friday in the hope of having their small catastrophes fixed. Democracy might be crowned with abstractions but it is built on the weekly efforts of our 650 MPs – who hear these struggles face to face and fight for the rights of people who sent them to parliament. On Friday David Amess was martyred to that cause, to which he devoted nearly 40 years of his life.

We are told that the Metropolitan police national counter terrorism directorate is investigating Amess’s brutal and shocking murder and that Islamist extremism is a potential motive. The suspect detained by police is described as Somalian. We do not yet know the motivation behind this awful attack. We will see.

But whatever the context, we must not respond by pushing elected representatives further away from ordinary people. Violent extremists from the IRA to Isis – whether acting alone, inspired by online hatred, or in concert with others – detest normality. The more deformed public life becomes as a result of their barbarity, the more traction they gain, out of all proportion to their blighted existence. And, make no mistake, they thrive in our age of extremes where polarised politics corrodes faith in our democratic institutions.

But MPs and their support staff should not have to live with the threat of being murdered in the course of their duties. Many of them will be feeling frightened and vulnerable this morning and asking why such an outrage has happened again. The police must have an assertive role in making sure that open, accessible democracy continues with MPs and their staff in the community protected to the fullest extent possible from those whose greatest ambition would be its destruction.

Back in 2016, following the murder of Jo Cox by an extreme right-wing terrorist, I was surprised to learn that the protection of MPs was partly co-ordinated by Ipsa, the independent parliamentary standards regulator better known for questioning expense receipts. In 2016, the Met Deputy Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu wrote to all Chief Constables reminding them of their obligations in respect of ‘Operation Bridger’ – a national initiative to improve MPs’ protection, which cited ‘real anxiety and a low level of confidence that the authorities are addressing their protection.’ The language in this letter is striking. It is essentially a begging letter, pleading with all 43 Chief Constables to better support MPs, some of whom had expressed ‘low confidence’ in the policing response.

What also emerges from this missive is the complex stew of local, national and parliamentary agencies and units engaged in risk management. While there may have been improvements in the interim, it does not sound like a protection regime designed to inspire confidence or act with executive efficiency. When the grief and anger dies down, this is an initiative that must require robust independent scrutiny. As I have written before for Coffee House, we have far too poor a track record in Heath-Robinson style threat management in this country to be remotely complacent.

Representative democracy is anathema to theocratic fascists and other extremists the world over. There’s something unique and precious about our system where politicians leave a gilded palace at the end of the week and fan out across this nation to church halls, rooms above pubs and school classrooms to meet ordinary people and help solve their problems. Whatever the cost, this system must be preserved – but that cost can’t be paid for with any more blood. Sir David Amess stoutly defended that open, accessible process. Honouring his life and service requires the full might of the state to keep it going.

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