Killing Democracy

James Denselow
James Denselow

The balance of a free democracy and the security needed to safeguard it has been thrust into the centre of British political debate following the killing of Sir David Amess MP. Members of Parliament traditionally use Fridays to hold constituency surgeries; public meetings at various well-known localities where they can hear directly from their electorate and pick up issues on their behalf or help them navigate the complex world of local government. The ability for a constituent to easily secure face to face contact with their representative is an essential component of Britain’s democratic traditions but is challenged by the nature of modern political violence.

Two Members of Parliament, from the two main opposing political parties, have been killed over the past ten years. Sir David Amess MP this month and Jo Cox MP over five years ago. Both were struck down far away from the high security found in Westminster and the Houses of Parliament. There, concrete barriers protect iron gates which are manned by visible armed police and unseen security on 24-hour standby. The heart of British democracy feels understandably protected like most European Government buildings in the post 9/11 era, yet it is in the more local and far flung locations of official political gatherings that this system of governance is most under threat.

Constituency events are often in religious spaces or community buildings. These are designed to be accessible and approachable, quite the Achilles heal when it comes to warding off a determined attacker. Indeed, the man who is now charged with Sir David’s murder actually booked a meeting with the MP whilst claiming he was unable to give an address as he’d only just moved into the area.

Ali Harbi Ali has been charged with murder and terror offences over death of the Conservative MP. He used a knife for the killing, hardly a sophisticated and difficult to acquire weapon, and was able to secure a meeting in an unprotected site with his intended target. Following Sir David’s death unity in Parliament has rallied against the terrible divisions and anger on display in the virtual world. The idea of the internet making us more connected and empathetic individuals may still hold true for most of us, but for a sizeable minority it can be a place to organise and radicalise around ideological poles and agendas that occasional surface in one off acts of senseless and tragic violence.

In the debates that followed the killing there has of course been talk of building a kinder politic, but there is a terrible irony that those who would attack politicians as being separate and aloof from the wider public act in ways that just reinforce that actual separation. Having elected representatives observe the country they govern from behind bulletproof glass or only once members of the public have been screened and gone through knife arches does contribute to a class divide of the governors and the governed.

To read a local paper anywhere in the United Kingdom is to understand what a soft target a Member of Parliament really is. Beyond their advertised surgeries is their almost ubiquitous presence at major community events, shop openings, festivals and of course at their local constituency office. Beyond the fact that Parliamentarians want to be seen and out and about in their community, there are infinite social media following their progress through the public realm. To lose all of much of this would be to lose a key component of the golden thread linking decision makers to those their decisions effect. It would create more isolation, further alienation and ultimately create the exact dynamics of ‘out of touch’ politicians that extremists currently use as part of their justification to violence.

So, there is much to be said for those MPs who have already said that democratic business as usual must continue. Only a handful have suggested getting rid of constituency surgeries. Perhaps as ever the answer will be found as an imperfect compromise of sorts. Already MPs have less visible security in place – panic buttons and the like – perhaps a review of locations for public meetings can improve safety whilst not gutting the country’s democratic traditions.

by: James Denselow

James Denselow,