The reaction from the political establishment to the murder of Sir David Amess has been what you might expect. Politicians and media commentators of all persuasions have been united in their condemnation of the brutal slaying of this evidently popular member of parliament. And that is, of course, how it should be.
But I detect that, deeper in the bowels of political activism, matters aren’t quite so categorical. There hasn’t, it seems to me, been the same kind of grassroots unity of purpose and solidarity accompanying Sir David’s murder as that which we saw in the wake of the dreadful assassination of Jo Cox. Fewer candles and words of unconditional condemnation, no Twitter hashtag, a little more reticence among those who were not of Sir David’s political hue.
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The contrasting reactions are certainly instructive. Some have said the difference might be explained by the fact that Cox was murdered by a far-Right fanatic (very easy for progressives to condemn), whereas Sir David was killed allegedly in the name of Islam (politically more problematic). I think it runs deeper than that.
Sir David was a pro-Brexit Thatcherite Tory. A committed Catholic, he opposed abortion. Those things are enough to persuade some on the progressive side of politics that, while his killing was indefensible, his politics were rooted in a lack of compassion for others; ergo he does not warrant much more than the obligatory statements of regret and condemnation. That he voted against military action in Syria in 2013, that he had raised the alarm about fuel poverty, and that he opposed fox-hunting and had, more than any other parliamentarian, fought the wider campaign for animal welfare – all causes close to the hearts of many on the Left – seems immaterial.
This attitude is symptomatic of the tendency of many on the Left to see those on the other side of the political debate as inherently bad people — even sometimes as something a bit less than human. It is a dispiriting and destructive approach. It is also, quite simply, wrong.
Don’t misunderstand me. I have spent most of my adult life opposing the Tories from my place in the labour movement. There is much that has gone wrong in Britain over the years – particularly during the Thatcher era — for which I would lay the blame squarely at the Tories’ door: wealth and income inequality, creaking public services, the housing crisis, austerity, unemployment, low wages, boardroom excesses, chronic industrial decline, and so on. But that doesn’t lead me to believe that people only ever join the Conservative Party to screw the working-class or that Rik Mayall’s Alan B’stard is something more than crude caricature.
While I believe their prescriptions for the economy and society are often profoundly mistaken, I find it hard — unlike many of my colleagues on the Left — to conclude that most Conservatives are driven by something other than a genuine desire to make the country a better place. One can dislike the medicine — and even find it highly distasteful — while believing the person administering it to be acting with the best intentions.
Having spent most of my years living in a Labour heartland, I reside these days in a true blue Tory constituency. I’m quite certain that most of my neighbours vote Conservative. But they are often the most selfless people, doing good works locally, raising money for charity, coming to the aid of fellow citizens in need (such as during the covid pandemic), and throwing themselves into community-centred clubs and societies. I could debate and disagree with them all day on questions of the economy, the best model for public services, the value of trade unions, the role of the welfare system, or whatever; but I don’t have the feeling they are instinctively avaricious or lacking in compassion when they put a different view. I just think they are wrong.
Sir David Amess himself was the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety and rescue. In that role, he worked collaboratively over many years with my own union — the Fire Brigades Union — in an effort to bring about policy changes to better protect the public from harm. Presciently, two and a half years before the Grenfell Tower fire, he was ruffling the feathers of his own government in warning of the risks of fire in residential tower blocks, and he championed the campaign to have sprinkler systems installed in all schools. Though these types of crusades rarely hit the headlines, he remained a diligent advocate for them — as, so we have learned in recent days, he did for so many other unglamourous causes. That the leadership of my union — not exactly given to speaking warmly of Tory MPs — issued a heartfelt tribute to Sir David in the wake of his murder says much.
It is plain, then, that this was not some pinstriped-suited, bowler-hatted Tory out to feather his own nest; this was an industrious and conscientious member of parliament doing the hard yards of law-making in a way he believed would improve the lives of the public. And that’s the point: most MPs do the same thing every day, despite the perception to the contrary.
In my past life as a senior union official, I had cause to interact with MPs from across the political spectrum. The vast majority, even when we disagreed, were, in my experience, entirely human, attentive and respectful. Many were trying to juggle their public role with a busy family life, frequently travelling long distances between their constituency and Westminster, earning a salary that was arguably less than they might have been able to secure elsewhere. It doesn’t hurt for the public to be reminded of these things.
The great Tony Benn always said politics was about “issues, not personalities”. He was right. It is, of course, unbecoming for MPs to describe their opponents as “scum”, and I don’t hold with the argument, advanced by some, that parliamentary rules should be relaxed so as to allow politicians to brand each other “liar”. These things merely serve to reinforce the mistaken impression that MPs see parliament as their own private battlefield and have little interest in focusing on the things that matter to the electorate.
Ultimately, too, there is a real danger in fomenting the false belief that our political institutions are filled with self-regarding and venal politicians interested only in their own advancement. Democracy itself is damaged when the governed have such a low opinion of the governors. All parliaments have their rotten apples, of course. But unless we have good cause to do otherwise, we should make the battle about ideas and policies, not motives.
I certainly don’t argue that we should give MPs a free ride. On the contrary, robust debate and scrutiny – even a bit of gentle mockery – are to be welcomed. Democracy demands that we hold our law-makers to the highest standards and call them to account when they fall short. There is certainly no harm in MPs from time to time experiencing the raw anger of the electorate – such as when many of them tried to block the implementation of Brexit — and I would be deeply uncomfortable, too, if, as a response to recent tragic events, attempts were made to cocoon MPs from their constituents. Indeed, the chasm that has opened up between the political class and millions of ordinary voters in provincial Britain over recent years is attributable in no small part to the fact that the former simply didn’t understand the lives of the latter, and that situation would not be improved by any plan designed to increase the distance between the groups.
But it is certainly time that we – and by “we”, I really mean the Left – moved away from seeing people on the other side of the debate as enemies rather than opponents. As Sir David showed us, strong views, independently held and passionately articulated, need not be a barrier to building bridges, forging alliances or earning the respect of those on the other side of the divide. Sometimes they might even be conducive to these things.