It takes courage to be a politician, even if the bravery often takes the form of not thinking about the risks. Most of the MPs that I speak to say they don’t think about it much, except in the days after terrible events such as the death of Sir David Amess. In a few days’ time, they will think about it less, mainly because it isn’t possible to keep up a heightened sense of alarm for long.
We should think about it for them, however, because we owe them a debt of gratitude for taking on a role that makes democracy possible. Not that I have any good ideas to submit to the home secretary’s immediate review of MPs’ security, apart from the obvious. MPs’ surgeries, where they invite their constituents to come to see them, are clearly a weak point.
Andrew Pennington, an assistant to Nigel Jones, the Liberal Democrat MP for Cheltenham, was fatally stabbed in 2000 at a surgery. Stephen Timms, Labour MP for East Ham, was stabbed at his surgery in 2010, and survived. Having a police officer present at MPs’ surgeries in future seems a small price to pay.
In other cases, death came in circumstances where it is harder to offer protection. Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, was attacked in the street. Sir Anthony Berry, the Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate, was blown up by an IRA bomb aimed at members of the cabinet in the Grand Hotel, Brighton, in 1984.
I was reminded of Sir Anthony by Michael Portillo’s tribute to David Amess. Portillo entered parliament the first time round because he inherited Sir Anthony’s seat, so Portillo had more reason to be aware of MPs’ mortality than most. Amess was once his parliamentary private secretary, so Portillo knew him well. It was from his article that I learned of Amess’s ambition to own a Rolls-Royce by the time he was 30, in which he succeeded. It is the kind of detail of someone’s life that would be liable to attract a sneer, but now that he is dead seems to light up a likeable, flamboyant individuality.
Amess was a good and hard-working constituency MP by all accounts, and, according to Ed Holmes, who worked for him, tried to help constituents when there were “no votes to be had, no cameras in sight”.
You don’t have to like or agree with a politician to recognise their bravery and public service, however. That was, I thought, the lesson on which everyone agreed after the death of Jo Cox five years ago. The plaque to her memory in the House of Commons chamber has the words “More in Common” on the scroll underneath.
Sadly, that determination to avoid the language of division, polarisation and moral superiority has been honoured as much in the breach as in the observance. Not that there is a line of causation that runs from intemperate language to the murder of MPs. The motives of Cox’s killer seemed to be more to do with white supremacist British nationalism than with MPs being rude about each other, or people on social media being unpleasant about them.
Similarly, the IRA blew up MPs because of an ideology of violent Irish nationalism rather than because of the toxicity of the general political debate. And while it is too early to speculate about the motives of Amess’s murderer, it seems likely that a similar point can be made there.
The reason for moderating the language of politics is not that a failure to do so can lead to violence, but that the people who put themselves forward for democratic service are worthy of our respect. And it is at times such as these that we are reminded of the wider costs of a career in politics: not just the higher risk of violence, but the exposure to death threats, the wear and tear of abuse, and the pressure on families and private lives.
We ought to be more worried than we are about the deterrent effect of all these costs, putting off able and public-spirited people from going into politics. Democracy cannot work well unless good people stand for election. If we value democracy, we have to value politics and we have to value the people who engage in it.
The death of Sir David Amess is sad, and what is also sad is that so many people say that all politicians are bad, or out of touch, or in it for themselves. Most politicians are a mix of good and bad, like the rest of us; most of them are so in touch with their constituents that they risk being stabbed; and most of them are egotistical enough to think that they can make the world better for everyone.
It is also sad that so many people say that we don’t live in a democracy because they think a different voting system would be better, or because some people with a lot of money have more influence than others. Both of those things may be true, but it doesn’t mean that what we have is “not democracy”. It means that the hope of improving democracy lies in valuing what we have and the brave people who make it possible.