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How can democracy function if taking part means fearing for your life? | Tom Peck

How can democracy function if taking part means fearing for your life? | Tom Peck
‘He was a friend to me, he was a friend to everybody … a gentleman. A proper MP,’ says a former local councillor of Sir David Amess

In a brick-built church on a boring street on a sunny afternoon, Sir David Amess MP had his life taken from him while doing his job.

He was there, at the Belfairs Methodist Church on Eastwood Road in Leigh-on-Sea, precisely because it was boring. When news of an appalling incident broke around noon, among the rush of Sir David’s friends was a man called Stephen Aleyn, once a local councillor in the area but no more, who had worked with Sir David for 30 years or more.

“He was a friend to me, he was a friend to everybody,” Mr Aleyn said. “The only reason he was here, doing his surgery, not in his constituency office, was because he wanted to meet people in the community. That’s what he was like. He was a gentleman. He was a proper MP.”

Mr Aleyn, like most people round here, in one of the less handsome bits of the very handsome and extremely popular seaside town of Leigh-on-Sea, thought at first that it was a minor road traffic accident. There are a lot of retirees round here. Roads get cordoned off a lot. Then an ambulance arrived. Then, a long while later, an air ambulance. That it appeared to take such a very long time heavily intimates what is understood to be the case. That there was, by this point, a tragic lack of urgency.

At half past three, schoolchildren going home on bicycles found a cordon of police vehicles blocking the way. They already knew what had happened.

“We can’t go down there because that man was stabbed.”

They are words you would hope an 11-year-old boy on his way home from school might never have to say.

Sir David Amess certainly was a proper MP. He was one, continuously, for 38 years. He never served in anybody’s cabinet, or as a minister. Those MPs who never do such things but who become widely known and widely respected nevertheless do so because they put in the boring, grind work that is their daily lives, which those who sail past them quite often cannot be bothered with.

He was killed, we understand, by a man he did not know, who was exercising his democratic right to talk to an elected politician, to seek help from him. And, according to police, he used the opportunity presented by that right to take out a knife and stab him multiple times.

Sir David Amess certainly was a gentleman. In the many tributes that have been paid to him in the hours since the outrageous incident took place, that is the one that has been heard most often. He was an Essex man, and an Essex Tory. The synecdochical Essex man, in a way, in that it was his victory in the bellwether Basildon constituency in 1992 that first made it clear that Neil Kinnock was not going to win.

He achieved a small amount of notoriety in the late 1990s, when he was tricked by the satirist Chris Morris into raising in the House of Commons the scourge of a new drug called “cake”, which Morris had entirely made up. Staff who worked for him in the years after maintain he was very good humoured about it. A few years later, Wikipedia was invented, and then went highly mainstream. After a while, he realised it was not the done thing to have the incident removed.

Sir David Amess certainly wanted to be among people, and that is the crucial question that will have to be deliberated, yet again, in the awful days and weeks ahead. His killing has naturally led for calls to draw the toxic language out of politics, to dial down the rhetoric, to take out the heat and the hatred, and that, of course, should happen.

But that is merely the mood of the hour, and does not consider the miserable reality that violent attacks on politicians going about their jobs occur every so often, with a shocking metronomic certainty, and not just in this country but all over the world. Though it must be noted that there are many more countries in the world with far higher crime rates, far larger populations and where far more people are killed that have not had to witness two of their parliamentarians killed on the streets in barely five years, and where others have been the subject of terrifying murder plots that blessedly never came to pass.

To blame the overheated rhetoric is to offer a small but nonetheless real mitigation for the actions of the person who, it is alleged, walked into a church with a knife and killed not just a man they did not know, but the elected representative of the place in which it happened. They do not deserve such mitigation.

The toxic rhetoric was certainly around when Jo Cox was killed, but not so much when Stephen Timms was stabbed in his office in East Ham 11 years ago. Nor when a young man called Andy Pennington was stabbed to death trying to protect his boss, Nigel Jones MP, in 2000.

There will be cries for change, to dial down, to end what is now a commonly accepted notion that politicians are villains to be vilified. But to begin that process of rehabilitation, a not insubstantial number of politicians themselves would have to change their ways too.

The question is what is to be done? They can have better security, they can conduct their business behind screens, but the blunt reality is that for the most part, they do not want to. Getting out and meeting people is part of the job. That’s why Sir David Amess was here. There are, quite rightly, votes in it, and votes are the currency of the business they’re in.

MPs know the risks, they know what has happened to their friends and colleagues, but they still do not want to retreat into a bubble because of it.

A politics in which politicians must be shielded from the people who elect them is a politics too grim to contemplate. The alternative is to carry on as we are, which is barely any less unedifying.

Though it is a glib sentiment that will be repeated many times in the days ahead it is nonetheless true. It is an attack on our democracy, on our way of living. It will also be said, many times over, that such attacks cannot possibly succeed, which ultimately they can’t.

But whoever the killer, whatever the cause, it doesn’t alter the reality that the weapon of terrorism is terror. That is the point of it. Members of parliament should not have to stand in harm’s way. You should not have to be brave to do the job. The friends and families of MPs should not spend their days and nights frightened for their safety, for their lives. But they certainly do.

How can a democracy be functional if the people must accept any degree of personal fear merely to take part in it?

The answer is that it cannot. It cannot go on like this. In the meantime, the most shocking aspect is that it will be no less shocking the next time round.