Richard North, 17/10/2021  

There is a great deal that doesn't add up about the murder of David Amess and even now details are frustratingly sketchy.

With information culled from multiple sources – all of which must be considered provisional - we learn that the killer is 25-year-old Ali Harbi Ali, although the police have not named him and are not confirming the name. It has been reported that he is a British citizen and that his family fled war-torn Somalia in the 1990s, where his father had been a former communications adviser to the prime minister of Somalia.

Harbi Ali is said to have been born in Britain, and his family is said to have lived in London after they had moved to the UK as refugees. Immediately before the attack, Harbi Ali lived in a council house in Kentish Town, North London, in a street of £2 million three-storey town houses.

It is believed that he may once have lived in Amess's Southend West constituency and he is understood to have family ties there. Security sources are suggesting that he planned the murderous assault more than a week in advance, having told Amess's constituency staffers that he had recently moved into the area. He had travelled by train from London to attend the surgery, where he was witnessed stabbing the MP multiple times.

The suspect is said to share details with a person previously referred to the government's anti-terror Prevent programme, and is believed to be a "self-radicalized" lone operative, known to counter-terrorist police. Police and security agencies are said to be looking at whether he was motivated by al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda subsidiary operating in Somalia and Kenya.

What is as yet unknown is why David Amess was targeted in the first place, as he appears to have been. And if he was, this might change some of the security calculations, which are uppermost in MPs' minds. Random and planned attacks each have their own implications. For the moment, though, any analysis must hold fire until we have more detail. There is no value in further speculation on the reasons for the attack.

As to the broader issues, what we are now seeing is a quite remarkable coalescence of sentiment between the media and the politicians, both for their own reasons anxious to affirm the value of MPs and the constituency surgery – one of the least examined institutions of British politics, according to Rafel Behr, in yesterday's Guardian.

As such, many voices aver – as does Behr – that that the attack on Amess represents "a chilling assault on British democracy", with concerns being expressed that additional security will create barriers between the public and their representatives, to the overall detriment of the democratic process. Certainly, I expressed my own views yesterday, about the dangers of MPs further distancing themselves from their electorates.

In this context, Behr makes great play of the surgery, the process allowing MPs to make "the human connection between the institutions of democracy and the people who are represented there". In the aftermath of Amess's murder, he says, "we forget them-and-us. We are reminded: they are us".

But no, they're not – MPs are not "us". The political class has grown distant from the public they supposedly serve, and the resultant chasm is not measured in units of length. It spans the differences in perceptions and expectations, and the feeling amongst ordinary mortals that politicians no longer have any real understanding of their concerns.

No fleeting contact with a small number of constituents is going to have a material effect on that sentiment, when the two primary functions of MPs are law making and scrutiny of the executive – and both functions are performed badly.

For MPs to turn themselves into over-paid social workers – which is what tends to happen in these surgeries - is a poor compensation for their broader failures. This makes the surgery a vastly over-rated institution, where many of the issues brought to the MPs have nothing directly to do with them, and would be better dealt with by local councillors.

To a very real extent, it is precisely because MPs are so useless at their primary functions that the surgery has evolved as such an important part of a constituency MPs role. Many MPs employ case workers and numbers of administrative staff to process the issues brought to their attention – something for which the office of member of parliament was neither designed nor intended.

Here one is reminder of the views of the great 18th Century parliamentarian, Edmund Burke. In a speech to the electors of Bristol in 1774, he told them that parliament "is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates".

In his view, parliament was "a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole". Thus, he told his electors, "you choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.

"If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form an hasty opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community", he said, "the member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavour to give it effect".

"To deliver an opinion", he had told his electors, "is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider".

But when I've talked to MPs, they tell me wearily that opinions on the affairs of parliament – the matters to which MPs should be addressing themselves – are rarely covered in surgeries, where MPs are expected to be a cross between agony aunts and personal crisis managers.

It is a reflection of how far we have drifted from Burke's view of the role of parliament – who famously never visited his constituency once he had been elected - that the Telegraph writes of the surgery process, having MPs conducting the country's affairs at Westminster and then "returning every week to the modest committee rooms and church halls in their constituencies to deal with the worries and problems of their voters".

These sessions, says the paper, "are the very essence of British democracy", thereby illustrating the fundamental inability of the media to understand what democracy means. It talks of surgeries as "a cornerstone of our way of life".

These meetings, we are thus informed, "have taken on the aspect and the name of doctors' surgeries because of the fact that voters, like patients, wait in line for a consultation with the man, or woman, who represents them in Parliament and who they hope may make their lives better".

This paragons of virtue are supposed to help their constituents "by securing that council house, or fixing the potholes in their street, or helping to get their child into the school of their choice".

To perform that solemn duty, the paper intones, "our tribunes and their constituents must be free to come and go as they please, to speak plainly to each other and, as is the British way, to exchange insults as well as pleasantries without let or hindrance".

It is that "almost sacred bond between MP and voter" that was shattered in the most brutal fashion by the murder of David Amess, the paper believes, thereby – perhaps unwittingly – opening a debate about what MPs, and parliament in general, are for.

If that might not have been its intention, it certainly seems to have been one of the effects of Amess's murder. It is certainly a debate which is needed and, despite the tragic circumstances that have opened up the opportunity, we should make the most of it. If we don't do it now, there may not be another chance.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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