Our system of representative democracy is in poor repair, targeted by terrorists and disdained by populists. We must halt its perilous decline
The three faces of public tragedy are grief, despair and impatience. The first response – shock and bereavement – is naturally the strongest and the most human, and has already been given powerful voice in the cross-party reaction to the killing on Friday of Sir David Amess.
To watch Andrew Rosindell and Wes Streeting pay joint tribute to their fellow parliamentarian in an interview with Sky’s Trevor Phllips yesterday morning was to realise how genuinely popular and respected Sir David was in the House of Commons.
Rosindell is the Conservative MP for Romford. Streeting represents Ilford North for Labour. Yet they were as one in the deep fondness with which they both spoke of Sir David, and in their shared sense of sorrow that he had been swept away by such an act of brutal violence.
Despair is no less predictable in response to such horrors: only five years ago the nation was stopped in its tracks during the Brexit referendum campaign by the murder of the Labour MP, Jo Cox. How can such a nightmare have repeated itself?
Small wonder that her widower, Brendan Cox, upon learning of Sir David’s death, “put the phone down and cried with my head on the table, shaking uncontrollably.” More striking, however, was the speed with which, as he wrote in the Sun, his thoughts turned to how he might be able “to use my own horrific experience to some end”: how to help Sir David’s family, how to “safeguard our democracy from a handful of extremists” and how to thwart their campaign “to turn community against community.”
Yesterday, Sir David’s loved ones released a quite remarkable statement that expressed a similar spirit. Their hearts were, they said, “shattered”. Yet they mustered the strength to declare that “this is not the end of Sir David Amess MP. It is the next chapter and as a family we ask everyone to support the many charities he worked with… we ask people to set aside their differences and show kindness and love to all. This is the only way forward. Set aside hatred and work towards togetherness.”
If those most immediately affected by such horror can respond with such dignity and hope, nobody else has the right to shrug their shoulders and accept wearily that violence is now simply part of the warp-and-weft of British political life and civic society.
It is certainly true that threats of assassination, plots and physical attacks have become appallingly commonplace in the last two decades. In 2000, Nigel Jones, then Liberal Democrat MP for Cheltenham, was wounded and his aide Andrew Pennington killed in a knife attack at his constituency office. Ten years later, Stephen Timms, the Labour MP for East Ham, survived terrible wounds after he was stabbed during a constituency surgery at the Beckton Globe Library in East London.
In March 2017, Khalid Masood drove a car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, killing four, crashed into the perimeter fence of the Palace of Westminster, and ran into New Palace Yard where he fatally stabbed PC Keith Palmer. In the same year, the neo-Nazi Jack Renshaw plotted to kill the Labour MP for West Lancashire, Rosie Cooper – and was judged a sufficiently “dangerous offender” in 2019 to be sentenced to a minimum prison term of 20 years.
To a horrific extent, most women MPs receive daily rape and murder threats – especially women of colour such as Diane Abbott, who was the target of more than half of all abusive tweets directed at female parliamentarians in the run-up to the 2017 election.
I know of one prominent woman MP who sets aside a day a week to fill in police paperwork so that at least some of those that threaten her every day online and in writing with death, rape and torture may be apprehended and, in a few cases, put behind bars. Sickening as it is that she should have to bear this burden at all, her work is inspiring evidence of the lengths to which those who are determined to serve the public will go to defy such wickedness.
As Gordon Brown said yesterday, there can be no wavering in our response to such atrocities: “The answer when you come across a terrorist incident is: we don’t blink, we don’t shirk, we don’t flinch, we don’t show weakness, we stand up for what we believe… we must not allow our democracy to be diminished.”
That is absolutely right and absolutely correct in its framing of what, precisely, is at stake. The murder of Sir David Amess was not an event comparable in scale to the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January, but the two attacks had much in common: an absolute disdain for representative democracy, a poisonous sense of implacable righteousness, and a fatal lack of civic inhibition.
To invade the seat of American democracy, decked in buffalo horns, declaring your intention to “hang Mike Pence”, or to kill a long-serving Conservative MP at his constituency surgery in Belfairs Methodist Church in Leigh-on-Sea: a deranged thread twitches between the two ostensibly very different horrors, cautioning us not to embrace the easy option of declaring such attacks “isolated incidents” or “outlier events”.
When Joe Biden spoke in his inaugural address on 20 January of the “winter of peril”, he was speaking not only of the time of year, nor of the United States alone. Something has gone seriously wrong in what used to be called the West, and it is a very bad idea to avert our gaze or to try to explain it away.
This leads to the third outcome of public tragedy, which is impatience. Again, this is a thoroughly human response to a terrible crime. Confronted by a grotesque violation of common decency, we naturally seek out solutions. But no such solutions are to hand because the roots of this pathology are deep, entangled and complex – and, more to the point, addressing them involves decisions that are not straightforward.
Already, it is clear that security at constituency surgeries will be enhanced, perhaps radically so in some cases: in interviews yesterday, both Priti Patel, the home secretary, and Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the speaker of the House of Commons, were unambiguous in their commitment to do whatever is necessary to protect MPs from physical peril.
We can expect to see a police presence at most surgeries from now on, and the installation of airport-style metal detectors in some instances. The plastic partitions separating MPs from their constituents that were set up in many offices during the worst of the pandemic may become a permanent feature. Some MPs, I gather, are exploring the cost and feasibility of bulletproof glass: a sad reflection of the point that we have reached.
The challenge, and a very difficult one, is to safeguard MPs without wrecking the relationship they have with their constituents – a relationship which is at the very heart of our representative democracy. It was shocking to hear Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, tell the BBC’s Andrew Marr yesterday that she did not feel safe out and about in her Wigan constituency. Nandy is both tough and popular. For her to admit this sense of vulnerability was admirably candid – but also a humbling indictment of the state we are in.
The trouble is that there is no glib answer to this particular question. Terrorism, by definition, is about much more than immediate bloodshed; its longer-term purpose is to spray psychological shrapnel around the society it seeks to disrupt. Its objective is to limit social freedoms and disfigure daily conventions.
Two decades after 9/11, we have grown used to much tighter security in airports. Few who work in Whitehall now recall the days before the black steel gates were installed at the end of Downing Street, predominantly to guard against IRA attack.
Nothing would give greater satisfaction to the jihadis and the far right groups that are the principal terrorist threat to this country if MPs now retreated into cocooned detachment from the public: mere avatars of their former selves, absent from the high street, the church fete and the town hall meeting.
Happily, there seems little prospect of this. As Hoyle wrote in yesterday’s Observer, whatever new measures are taken to protect MPs should not be permitted to eclipse their core civic function: “The very essence of being an MP is to help and be seen by our constituents. They are the people who elected us to represent them, so surely making ourselves available to them is the cornerstone of our democracy?”
Absolutely. But the corollary is to be pitilessly clear-sighted about the nature and persistence of the threat. For let us be frank: 20 years after the September 11 attacks, most people are bored by what was initially called the “war on terror” and now barely has a name. The enemy, in contrast, is not bored. In the asymmetric warfare of modern terrorism, the defining characteristic of the jihadi is stamina and patience. President Biden may be right that the West generally and the US specifically were fed up with their garrison role in Afghanistan. But – by withdrawing so abruptly and completely – he has handed both the Taliban and ISIS a famous victory. It is pointless to deny that, so far, 2021 has been a good year for the Islamists.
At this early stage, the possible motives of the man arrested on suspicion of murdering Sir David, the 25-year-old Ali Harbi Ali, remain a matter of speculation. Today’s Daily Telegraph quotes a source alleging that the MP was the random victim of a plan to kill any national politician and was “not targeted because of his political party. David Amess was not specifically targeted”.
Meanwhile, the police are also investigating the extent to which Sir David’s links with Qatar may conceivably have played a role in his murder. In the context of the Middle East and its conflicts, it is odd that so little attention has been paid to his longtime association with the Conservative Friends of Israel and his longstanding support of the Jewish community.
“Although I myself am not a Jew but a Catholic,” Sir David said in January, “there is Jewish blood in each and every one of us. I would certainly have been proud to have been born a Jew, and I stand shoulder to shoulder with our local Jewish community.”
What is known already is that Ali had been identified by the Prevent counter-extremism programme as an individual vulnerable to radicalisation, and reportedly referred to a “Channel” mentoring scheme. It appears that he was never a “subject of interest” for MI5.
The efficiency of the Prevent strategy, launched in 2007 and presently under official review, will come under fresh scrutiny, and rightly so. At the same time, it is important that, as a society, we decide what we want from this initiative and others like it.
On the one hand, Prevent is routinely accused of “structural Islamophobia”; on the other, it is fiercely criticised if it is not sufficiently sweeping and robust in its surveillance. In fact, more of Prevent’s practical work now concerns far right organisations than Islamist radicalisation.
Those involved by legal obligation in its complex activities – police, schools, other public sector bodies – face an ever more complex landscape of social dysfunction and disenchantment which they must navigate with limited time and resources, making fine judgments which, in some cases, could have life-or-death consequences.
Robert Buckland, the former justice secretary, was surely right yesterday to say that there needs to be a more “joined-up” approach to the monitoring of individuals, with enhanced inter-agency cooperation. No less important, however, is an understanding that 21st-century terrorism is nothing like its forebears. Too often, we comfort ourselves with the notion that jihadism is fragmented and disaggregated, and depends upon “lone actors” rather than hierarchies – when this is precisely its strength, rather than a sign of decline and weakness
For the most part, modern Islamism is not traditionally organised, more closely resembling a downloadable franchise or app: a digital means of linking those with shared objectives (the imposition of sharia, the subordination of women, the destruction of non-Islamic cultures). It lacks the visibility of the old Comintern, or the IRA Army Council. It attacks liberal society via the single antagonist or small group, relentlessly on the look-out for systemic vulnerabilities – such as the constituency surgery.
Even 20 years on, I do not think free societies have fully grasped this, or the morphing, nimble, irrepressible character of the threat. Nor have we really come to terms with the connection between individual acts of violence and the broader culture within which they take place.
Let there be no doubt: the person that killed Sir David Amess is fully and inexcusably responsible for that heinous act, and should be punished to the full extent of the law. No social force, ideological grooming or psychological pressure can mitigate that guilt.
But one does not have to step away from that ethical reality to accept that we are living in times of raging incivility, public coarseness and perils to everyday democratic discourse. As Evan Osnos writes in Wildland, his fine book on American rage, we must confront the “survival mindset derived from a sense of zero-sum contests, in which only one side can prevail.” In The Monarchy of Fear, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum reaches for a familial metaphor: “It’s like a bad marriage, in which fear, suspicion and blame displace careful thought about what the real problems are and how to resolve them.”
It is idle to deny that such a change has occurred. Pluralism is in bad shape. Populism has melted the norms of civil disagreement. The old guardrails of decency clatter to the ground.
Since Sir David’s murder, much attention has been paid to the savagery of social media and the abuse of anonymity to nurture hostility and spread fear. Indeed, how could it be otherwise? As Dominic Raab told Sky News this morning: “The elephant in the room in all this is the online hate that we all get, it’s out of control.”
All the more reason, then, to expedite the long-delayed Online Harms Bill.
Do not forget, though, that the attacks upon representative democracy are not only made on social media. Who was it, after all, that prorogued Parliament unlawfully in 2019? Who, in his party conference speech in 2019, scorned Parliament as no prime minister before him had ever done – denouncing it as “a pebble in our shoe”, a school that deserved to be shut down, a broken laptop, a failing feature of “the British system”?
All normal Boris Johnson banter, you might say. And certainly – of course – absolutely nothing to do with the murder of Sir David Amess. Only one person is responsible for that.
Nonetheless, we are entitled to ask – today of all days – what, exactly, this prime minister has done to defend representative democracy and Parliament in the past two years, precisely when it most needed to be cherished and protected.
It is not enough to safeguard individual MPs. We must safeguard the parliamentary system that they personify. In the words of a much more principled occupant of Number 10, Gordon Brown: “Hearts are broken but our resolve must be unbreakable. A life has been tragically destroyed but our values – our democratic values – are indestructible and we must show that now.” That is not only a fine epitaph to Sir David, but precisely the call to action that we need to hear.