IAN BIRRELL: It's vital we protect the soul of our democracy

IAN BIRRELL: It’s vital we protect the soul of our democracy after the murder of Sir David Amess five years after Jo Cox was killed

Yet again, Britain shudders in collective shock as a Member of Parliament is slaughtered while doing their job.

I do not know the full details as I write these words except that Sir David Amess has died in a stabbing. So this time it is a Tory. Last time it was Labour. But their politics do not matter now.

Sir David could not have been more different from Jo Cox, who was shot and stabbed five years ago.

He was a 69-year-old married father of five, firmly on the Tory right and Eurosceptic, a political veteran who had represented Essex constituencies (first Basildon, later Southend West) in parliament for almost four decades.

She was 41, Labour and a proud Remainer, a wife and adoring mother of two, filled with idealism after her election to a Yorkshire seat, Batley and Spen, in 2015.

But while so very different in life, this pair of politicians are united in the terrible manner of their deaths. Both were devoted democrats who died carrying out their work in a land that boasts of being the mother of parliaments. And both were murdered while attending the weekly surgeries with constituents that are one of the pillars of our political system.

Conservative MP Sir David Amess was stabbed at his constituency surgery in Essex on Friday 

Labour MP Jo Cox was also murdered in a similar attack in her constituency in 2016

So have no doubt this latest stabbing drives a chilling stake through the core of our democracy.

Inevitably there will be understandable demands for more security, more protection of our politicians, more distance from the people they represent.

Bear in mind that Cox may have been the first killing of an MP since 1990 (when Ian Gow became the fourth Westminster victim of the Irish Troubles). Yet two more had suffered savage attacks in their constituency offices and been fortunate to survive: the Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones (whose aide Andy Pennington died as he tried to protect him from a sword-wielding attacker in Cheltenham) in 2000, and Labour MP for East Ham Stephen Timms who was stabbed in 2010 by a woman protesting at his support for the Iraq War.

Politics is a tough job at the best of times given the intense demands, hours and pressures. MPs have less power than many voters think – yet at those crucial surgeries they must try to directly address their voters’ concerns and plug the many gaps in our creaking public services.

Meanwhile, the toxicity of our politics has grown as debate grows more brutal and shrill – inflamed by the Brexit divisions, the pandemic and, above all, by the corrosive nature of social media that panders to those shouting the loudest.

Yes, politicians bear some responsibility. Westminster often seems closer to a playground than a political arena. Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, calls Conservatives ‘a bunch of scum’ yet keeps her job. A colleague announces that she could never be friends with a Tory. Government ministers deliberately stoke explosive culture wars.

But these problems are not unique to Britain. Just look across the Atlantic, where in January this year there was a lethal invasion of the US Congress in an effort to thwart the presidential election result and talk of possible civil war in a divided society flooded with guns.

However, we need to grapple with the consequences for our own democracy since it relies on that openness between politicians and the people they are elected to serve.

Twenty years ago, following the attack on Jones, his colleagues were already starting to warn about facing terrifying threats and keeping their office addresses secret.

After the killing of Cox in 2016, a Home Office study of 239 MPs found four in five had experienced aggressive or intrusive behaviour and in half the cases, they were targeted in their own homes. Depressingly, 36 of them said they feared going out in public. As Sir David wrote at the time, in words now laced with such cruel irony, MPs were becoming more wary and focusing on security. He said, rightly, that such attacks imperil ‘the great British tradition of the people openly meeting their politicians’.

Police at Belfairs Methodist Church in Eastwood Road North, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, where Conservative MP Sir David Amess has died

Yet this comes as we need desperately to strengthen Westminster, boost public trust in politics and improve the talent pool of our leaders given the enormity of the challenges at home and abroad.

Our democracy is under assault on many fronts – from foreign powers, from social media, from multinationals and now from another of these horrifying attacks.

At the same time, we have become frighteningly casual over the precious nature of our democracy. This jars with me when I report from around the world on brave people risking their lives and liberty for a way of life we take for granted.

Jo Cox did not deserve to die in brutal circumstances. Nor did David Amess. But now in the wake of their distressing killings, we need to ponder how to protect both our MPs and the soul of our democracy.

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