David Amess embodied open, decent politics

His death is the second murder of a British politician in under six years

British politicians are some of the most accessible in the world. Even the country's highly secure Parliament, with a dedicated branch of armed police, barriers and metal detectors, is designed to be open to the public, who can enter in a matter of minutes on a quiet day. Politicians are even more accessible in their local area.

This openness is a fundamental strength of the British system. But on Friday, it was violated in a suspected terror attack that killed David Amess, a Conservative politician and a father of five.

He was one of the UK's longest-serving members of Parliament, having been elected in 1983. His career is a success story of British politics. He did not have a privileged upbringing and grew up in London's predominantly working-class East End. But his 40-year tenure won him a knighthood, as well as the nickname "Mr Southend" from his constituents.

The priest at his parish church – Amess was a committed Catholic – summed up his impact on the area, saying he never saw him without a smile on his face and that "he carried that great east London spirit of having no fear and being able to talk to people and the level they're at. Not all politicians, I would say, are good at that".

In Parliament, he took and could back up clear political and moral positions. But ideology was not everything and he never really sought more senior, ministerial roles, choosing instead to stick by his locality. Tragically, this is where he was killed, while holding a local meeting with constituents.

Such meetings, known as "surgeries", are a fundamental aspect of British democracy. Their nature going forward will now be up for much discussion. Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood has even called for a temporary pause to all in-person meetings until more security is put in place. Amess is, after all, not the first MP in recent times to be killed in their constituency. In June 2016, Labour Party politician Jo Cox was murdered in Batley and Spen by a far-right extremist. In a tweet after Amess's killing, Cox's former husband, Brendan Cox, wrote: "My thoughts and love are with David’s family. This brings everything back."

Most politicians do not fear being killed for doing their jobs. But a wider culture of harassment and abuse of them is becoming normalised in countries that have permitted a toxic public discourse, whether it be in London or the US Capitol. Murder is arguably the final result of this terrible phenomenon and authorities in the UK must now consider new measures to keep MPs safe, be it police presence at meetings or even a permanent move to remote consultations.

That would be a great loss to the openness of British politics, however. To prevent it and others, people must learn to choose a more fundamental solution: constructive political dialogue over vitriol and anger. Personal and social responsibility to be tolerant will be the only permanent fix, not more security.

After all, as a colleague pointed out, one of the reasons Amess was so loved and respected was because he would have opposed more barriers between him and his constituents.

Published: October 17th 2021, 3:00 AM