It’s hard to take in the events of yesterday. I was in a meeting with local residents discussing housing issues when my phone pinged and I saw the news that my colleague David Amess had been stabbed at his constituency surgery. I continued numbly and by the time I returned to my office, I learned David had died from his injuries.
David’s death is indescribably tragic. As a new MP I didn’t have the chance to get to know him well. But all the tributes from those who did describe a wonderful man and a brilliant parliamentarian. Gentle, kind, faithful, generous, committed to his constituents and constituency. His loss will be felt so keenly by his family and friends, as well as his staff, constituents and colleagues.
We are deeply saddened but also deeply shocked that such a brutal murder could take place in a routine constituency surgery, at the heart of the community that David served so well. Despite what is often written about Members of Parliament being in a Westminster Bubble, MPs dedicate an enormous amount of time on the ground in their constituencies, both on official business such as conducting surgeries and visiting schools, but also in an informal capacity, popping into the local pub, shopping at the local supermarket, chatting to residents in the park. Most MPs — and their partners and children — are very much a part of the communities we represent. It is horrible to be reminded that we are in danger in the place we call home.
Much is still unknown about the circumstances surrounding David’s death and the motives of his murderer. But, while physical attacks on politicians are mercifully rare, it is also rare that we feel truly safe. Whilst the vast majority of constituents are polite and friendly when we meet them face to face, the toxic atmosphere generated by social media – where comments about us often contain threats, personal information and abuse – ensures that MPs are constantly aware that there are many who wish us harm. Like all MPs, I could fill many pages with the online abuse that I’ve had to report or delete — on one occasion a Twitter user incited others to share my home address. I had to temporarily move my family out of our home while the police got involved.
This is not just a problem faced by MPs; a brief glance at the Twitter account of any journalist or academic will reveal the appalling state of the health of our public discourse. Vile language, threats, personal abuse, sexualised comments, demonisation and hate that would no doubt result in perpetrators’ arrest if the attacks were made in the “physical world”.
We’re in danger of losing our humanity, forgetting that behind every public profile lies a human being, who laughs, cries, loves and tries to make the best of life like the rest of us. In a free society with healthy democratic debate, we should be brutal in critiquing ideas and beliefs but protective of the people who espouse them. I fear we have turned this principle on its head, with more and more sensitivity about challenging ideas and a readiness to demonise or hate the people who take a different view.
I am new to politics, and before I entered Parliament I’m afraid I had probably accepted a number of the common stereotypes about MPs. But I can honestly say have never ever met a group of people who work harder and who take their responsibilities more seriously than Members of Parliament, of all parties. It is the sad truth that abuse on social media already discourages many good people — especially women — from standing for election, and the awful events of yesterday will only make matters worse.
Our security services work tirelessly to protect those in public office, and I had been contacted by four separate local police officers by the early evening yesterday, to reassure me and my staff. No doubt improvements can be made to keep us safer, though inevitably this will result in less free and open access to our constituents.
We will never eliminate all risk, and of course moments like this make all of us think twice about the potential dangers of this particular job. Yet MPs like me will continue to do what it takes to represent our constituents, not because we deny or accept the threats to our safety, but because we are resolved to serve. It might sound old fashioned, but I still believe that politics is a vocation, and many of my colleagues describe a sense of a calling to the role.
David Amess epitomised this resolve to serve and he will be remembered as someone who demonstrated all that’s good about politics. Rest in Peace.