After David Amess’s death, MPs will feel the cold shiver of vulnerability | Rafael Behr

The veteran Conservative’s killing is a human tragedy and a chilling assault on British democracy

One of the most common accusations to be levelled at MPs is that they are “out of touch”. It is sometimes true, but not as often as people may think. The charge is frequently a device to portray ideological difference as cultural alienation. We disagree with a politician’s opinions, and want that to indicate some moral detachment from the ordinary people they are elected to represent.

In reality, most MPs are more closely connected, more palpably in touch with the electorate than their many critics appreciate. David Amess was making contact with his constituents – physically present, personally attentive, intimately available – when he was killed in his Essex constituency on Friday afternoon.

Whatever the identity and motives of the killer – facts that will emerge in due course – the act is felt as an assault on democracy, as well as a cruel human tragedy. The MPs’ constituency surgery is one of the least examined institutions of British politics partly because so much of what happens there is confidential. Anyone who has had the privilege of sitting in on a session will know how intensely private and often harrowing the stories can be of vulnerable people, anxious, adrift in chaotic lives or hostages to dysfunctional bureaucracy, turning to their elected representative for advice – or sanctuary.

There are often time-wasters, too, cranks and vexatious complainants. But variety and unpredictability is a function of the open door. A wide spectrum of characters, opinions and temperaments are found in every constituency, and each is entitled to be heard. But the MP is entitled to hear them without fear of violence. Democracy shrinks when every new figure in the doorway might cast a murderous shadow.

In 2010, Stephen Timms, Labour MP for East Ham, survived a knife attack in his constituency office. Once recovered from life-threatening injuries, he went straight back to holding face-to-face constituency surgeries, considering it an essential fulfilment of the duty to which he was elected.

In June 2016, Jo Cox was shot and stabbed outside the library she was due to visit in her West Yorkshire constituency. She had been an MP for less than a year, which was long enough to make one of the most memorable interventions in the House of Commons for a generation. It was her maiden speech, celebrating the social and cultural diversity of the area she represented. The peroration became her epitaph: “What surprises me, time and time again, as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

It is a radiant truth too often submerged in the brackish foam of partisan rage. The shine on Cox’s words needs regular protection from the tarnish of corrosive cynicism. That which divides us has a nasty habit of shouting over the top of what we have in common.

MPs from all factions in all parties will be united in shock and grief at the death of David Amess. They will also feel the cold shiver of vulnerability, since many of them will have received abuse and threats online and in person. And it is not just the MPs who are affected. Their families and staff are targeted. Many will have installed extra security precautions, not just in their constituency offices but in their homes, on the advice of police, when the threats are deemed to be not idle. Most will have been accosted at some point in the street, in the supermarket, at a local fete, and been told of their worthlessness, of their greed and corruption, of their complicity in all manner of foul policies and far-fetched conspiracies.

MPs will have borne those verbal assaults with dignity and patience because it is part of the job. Or, rather, it has become part of the job and no one has yet worked out a way to restore boundaries of basic civility. If it is a choice between security and accessibility, British politicians have collectively stuck with the latter, which is the courageous path, but it is not a dilemma that they should face in a civilised democracy.

For all the ferocity of a hyper-partisan political culture and the febrile, intemperate mood that seems to have become the permanent condition of Westminster, an immutable quality of parliament is its purpose as a house of representation. It may seem culturally remote, even out-of-touch. But an MP was killed today, in the act of getting in touch. David Amess was making the human connection between the institutions of democracy and the people who are represented there. On a day like this, we forget them-and-us. We are reminded: they are us.

  • Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist

Contributor

Rafael Behr

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
After David Amess’s horrific death, here’s how to protect our democracy | Brendan Cox
It is incumbent on all of us to reject polarisation and debate our opponents in good faith, says Brendan Cox, widower of Jo Cox MP

Brendan Cox

18, Oct, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
The UK must not stand by while crimes against humanity are committed | Alison McGovern
Our report, begun by the murdered MP Jo Cox, argues that acting to prevent mass atrocities is an essential part of Britain’s role in the world

Alison McGovern

26, Jan, 2017 @11:04 AM

Article image
Boris Johnson’s brutish parliamentary performance defied all democratic dignity | Polly Toynbee
The shameful spectacle of Johnson’s MPs cheering him on can only serve to unite opposition efforts to defeat him, says Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee

Polly Toynbee

26, Sep, 2019 @9:27 AM

Article image
My friend Jo Cox was assassinated, but her legacy will be to unite communities | Stephen Kinnock
Now the trial is over we must remember the relentlessly positive Yorkshire lass for what she stood for as an MP, rather than for what happened to her

Stephen Kinnock

23, Nov, 2016 @6:11 PM

Article image
Should Thomas Mair be considered a terrorist? | Hugh Muir and Joseph Harker
The far-right sympathiser was jailed for life of the murder of MP Jo Cox. Hugh Muir and Joseph Harker debate whether he should be labelled as a terrorist

Hugh Muir and Joseph Harker

24, Nov, 2016 @12:39 PM

Article image
Team investigating anti-MP crime deals with 102 complaints in first year
Complaints addressed by team set up after Jo Cox murder include abusive messages, thefts and criminal damage

Sarah Marsh

14, Sep, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
For rightwing hypocrisy on free speech, look at Anjem Choudary | Michael Segalov
Choudary was sent to jail – no-platformed by the state – and rightly so. The law treats hate speech the same whether it’s from the far right or Islamic extremists, says journalist and author Michael Segalov

Michael Segalov

21, Sep, 2018 @9:02 AM

Article image
Political debate has coarsened. We MPs can take the lead in restoring calm and respect | Alison McGovern
It might not look like it to outsiders but when practised properly, politics is an antidote to cynicism

Alison McGovern

17, Oct, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
The Guardian view on language in politics: playing with fire | Editorial
Editorial: With his contemptuous dismissal of colleagues’ fears of violence, the prime minister has sunk to a new low

Editorial

26, Sep, 2019 @5:46 PM

Article image
It is hypocritical to demand Kate Osamor’s son loses his job | Michael Segalov
Why do some MPs want a man punished beyond what the courts decided, asks journalist and author Michael Segalov

Michael Segalov

08, Nov, 2018 @2:58 PM