The British political establishment has been profoundly shocked by the murder of the Sir David Amess last Friday, by a member of the public as the Conservative MP undertook a constituency surgery. What can we draw out from this tragic episode?
The statement put out by Sir David’s family is particularly touching in its call for a response of human kindness, amidst this shattering blow, both encouraging the support of charities, and a more tolerant conduct of political debate. Sir David was a practising Catholic, and it is heartening to see that he and is family had such a clear understanding of Christian values. Most people who talk about “Christian values” in public have little idea what they are – defence of them has even been used as a justification for violence. I am also puzzled by the positions taken by many practising Christians, including Catholics, who don’t seemed to have grasped the central Christian message. I have lapsed so I’m not in a position to lecture them – but I do take heart when Christians get it right, at least according to my understanding.
We don’t know the motive of the killer, except that the police have decided that it is a matter of terrorism. The person arrested is of Somali heritage, so the natural assumption is that this was an Islamist attack. If so, it is very worrying, because it means that the jihadi community, which seems to exist principally online, has spotted a weakness in the British system, which is the level of security afforded to ordinary MPs as they go about constituency business. The only sensible response to this is to improve security, as the threat is pretty much impossible to deal with at source – and we now have the possibility of copycat attacks. This, alas, will make MPs less like ordinary members of the public – which isn’t healthy for the political system. It is often said that the availability of British MPs is a strength of our system, and especially single-member constituencies, and that MPs in other countries are more aloof. How true this is I can’t say, and the efforts that MPs make to consort with their constituents varies a lot – especially since most seats aren’t considered particularly competitive.
There has been a lot of talk to the effect that the risk to MPs has increased due to the more toxic political intercourse, especially through social media. MPs often attract death and other threats – it is said that this is much more than used to be the case. We need to beware of looking at the past with rose-tinted spectacles, though. I remember political discourse being pretty toxic when I entered political consciousness in the 1970s. Still I don’t think there were so many public death threats then – and whether or not it is has actually got much worse doesn’t make it more acceptable in a civilised democratic society. But if the attack was indeed Islamist terrorism, it will have little to do with this increased toxicity, unlike the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016. Still, I can hardly blame MPs for raising the issue now.
Can we make politics here in Britain a kinder, more tolerant place? Alas some MPs seem to draw a distinction between firing up their activists in private, and public discourse. Labour Deputy Leader Angela Rayner would not apologise (or even issue a non-apologising apology) for referring to “Tory scum” in such a meeting. Some of the posts I have seen from antiracism site “Resisting Hate” have raised my eyebrows given the site’s chosen name. Not that the left has any monopoly on not drawing a clear distinction between abusive language and “passionate” beliefs. Hating is what the other side does. Alas there is indeed a strong link between hate and passion, and using hateful language to stir up the base, and create doubts among less committed opposition supporters, is a successful political tactic. Donald Trump’s political career was built on it. Politicians may blame social media, but they need to look at their own practices too.
It need not be thus. Sir David Amess was an example of another way. His views weren’t particularly moderate on some issues, but he always conducted himself in a civilised manner. I wish more politicians would learn from him.