Richard North, 18/10/2021  

The eulogies on the saintly David Amess continue to pour in, recalling amongst other things the campaigns fought by the veteran MP.

Strangely though, one of those which hasn't been mentioned yet is the spirited campaign he ran on behalf of his son – of the same name – after he had been imprisoned for four years after smashing a man over the head with a champagne bottle, after "wielding it as a club.

Amess Senior was partially successful after his son's sentence was cut to three years on appeal, even though judges rejected claims that the conviction had been "unsafe". After the hearing, a statement from the Amess family said: "Some progress has been made in our endeavour to clear our son's name and to secure justice for him. That we intend to pursue with renewed vigour".

There is no record of whether that "renewed vigour" achieved its intended effect, but there is certainly no lack of vigour in the wake of the Amess Senior's murder, as MP look at measures to enhance their own safety. It is axiomatic that, if they prevailed on the government to pursue measures to curtail Islamic extremism, we might all be a little safer. But if MPs are at all concerned about enhanced public protection, they have been extremely reluctant to show it.

Nor have we seen Johnson, Starmer, Patel or any other of the Southend mourners hot-footing it up to Glasgow to lay wreaths at the site of the latest knife murder, this one of a 14-year-old boy who was stabbed outside a railway station. It seems that politicians are reserving their public displays of grief for their own.

No one, of course, can be anything but horrified by the barbaric murder of David Amess, but that should not stop us observing that the reaction of the establishment – the politicians and media - are as inept after the event as they were before. Thus, the opportunity to unify the nation in a common cause has been lost, while the issues – if the Observer most-read list is any guide (pictured) – have been lost in a wave of public indifference.

Those looking for broader public support will not be encouraged by the MP's defensive responses, which can do little to bridge the chasm between "us and them".

Under consideration is a system where constituents who book in meetings with their MPs could have their backgrounds checked. All of us will be treated with the same degree of suspicion as an Islamist terrorist, changing forever the relationship between the public and their elected representatives.

An individual requesting a meeting with an MP would have to allow their details to be checked against terror watch lists. Other databases, such as lists of known criminals and the electoral roll, could also in theory be cross-referenced, with the latter revealing whether the person seeking a meeting lives in the constituency.

Other ideas include getting police officers to attend constituency meetings, airport-style security to check voters before they enter and MPs being urged not to meet voters alone. No one is as yet suggesting armoured screens, but anything is possible.

The ideas so far proposed follow an intervention by speaker Lindsay Hoyle, in the Observer, who wants "an end to hatred" against MPs and "a kinder form" of political discourse.

Hoyle is worried that, while the security offered to MPs must now be reviewed, there is a wider problem about the levels of hatred and intimidation in politics that must be addressed. "If anything positive is to come out of this latest awful tragedy", he says, "it is that the quality of political discourse has to change. The conversation has to be kinder and based on respect".

Many MPs privately confide that they face death threats on a regular basis on social media. One senior Westminster source said the numbers of people now in prison or awaiting trial for threatening MPs or abusing them was "staggering". The source says, "It is a British disease. The numbers are horrifying. It is an epidemic".

Conservative MP Shailesh Vara says the kind of language used by people when communicating with MPs, either on social media or by other means, is becoming more hostile and aggressive all the time, affecting MPs' staff as well as elected representatives.

"To call me the C-word or to refer to politicians like me as bastards and to use unpleasant and aggressive tones is normal for some people these days", he concedes. "What they don’t realise is that it is not just us they are abusing. It is our staff, people who are just trying to do a job, trying to earn enough to put food on the table, pay their mortgage and the bills".

The MP also tells us that, with the volume of correspondence received, staff are essential. "Not so long ago", he says, "MPs would get about 20 letters a week, they shared one secretary between them all and an MP could write 20 handwritten letters to those constituents and all was well and good. Now I can get more than 25 emails in less than an hour".

Another senior Tory MP, Charles Walker, says: "Living in fear has become a routine part of many of my colleagues' lives. Many have the incredible ability to compartmentalise that part of their existences but it should not have to be that way".

The Observer also cites Jade Botterill, a former assistant to Labour MP Yvette Cooper. She left politics because of the abuse directed at her boss. "I would get in and all I would do is go on Facebook and report death threats and delete them", she said. "I reckon I reported over 1,000 death threats. I couldn't sleep".

All this has Hoyle observing: "The hate which drives these attacks has to end. Disagreements with politicians should be solved at the ballot box not via threats, intimidation or murder". And therein lies more evidence of the divide. Hoyle is no more realistic in putting his faith in the ballot box than are those who would further restrict our access to MPs.

But one has to marvel at Hoyle's naivety. He must be the only person in the country who is unaware that the political system is broken and that elections have become an empty charade. Would that he knew it, much of the hostility MPs and their staffs experience simply reflects people's frustration with the broken system.

But it must also reflect the growing dismay at the inability of parliament to curb the power of the executive, or to hold it to account. After the Brexit debacle, with policy wreckage strewn around like discarded confetti, people now face impositions such as heat pumps, and massive hikes in energy costs, supply shortages and galloping inflation – while military age Muslins rock up at Dover in their thousands, with no effort to stop them. Can there be any wonder that MPs are roughly handled?

At least the Sunday Times has it half right about the safety issue, acknowledging that MPs "should take greater precautions in the way that they interact with the public, and they should, if necessary, be given greater resources to make themselves, their staff and other constituents attending their surgeries more secure".

But, the paper says, "what we should not do is allow this senseless murder to change one of the essential features of our democracy. That would give the terrorists, assuming this is proved to be a terrorist attack, a victory that they do not deserve".

"If MPs were deprived of direct contact with their constituents", it adds, "the democratic process would suffer and the country would be poorer as a result". David Amess, who was aware of the dangers, would not have wanted that, the paper concludes: "Neither should anybody else".

But there needs to be more than clichéd generalities. On the one hand, the Guardian reports that UK Muslim groups are braced for a rise in "hate crime", while the Telegraph warns that "Britain faces 'wave of terror attacks plotted by bedroom radicals'".

In the middle is MP Rupa Huq, who typifies the vacuous "something must be done" brigade. "After two killings, serious thinking and action is needed to drastically reduce the chances of there being a third", she says.

Like the rest of her ilk, she has little idea of what should be done, and there is nothing worthwhile on offer from any other quarter. Thus, this ghastly drama still has a long, long way to go, and it seems that the only direction is down. If MPs feel unloved now, in a year's time they might be looking on this period as a golden age.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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