Last Tuesday I wrote about the absolute necessity for politicians and policymakers to get out of the office and to experience the problems and challenges faced by our communities.
A few days later Essex MP Sir David Amess lost his life doing exactly that. I knew Sir David as a lovely, gentle, respected and funny man whose recent book – ‘Ayes and Ears’ – I bought recently.
His shocking killing leaves a wife without a husband, four daughters and a son without a father and a constituency without a member of parliament who had served them diligently since 1983.
This shocking crime rocked the political world and raises a number of questions. Do our politicians need to take additional security measures? Could more have been done to apprehend the suspect? Is the tone of political debate on social media linked to an increased risk for the physical safety for those who dare to share their views with the world? And how are we going to attract people of all walks of life to a career of service to their communities if they are to be exposed to hate speech and potentially violence?
Sadly these are not new questions but ones we are revisiting after the deaths of Jo Cox, the Spen and Batley MP murdered five years ago and Cheltenham councillor Andrew Pennington who died in 2000 while defending MP Nigel Jones.
The speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, and Home Secretary Priti Patel attempted to answer the first of these questions by reviewing MPs’ security arrangements.
Various proposals to make MP surgeries more secure were debated over the weekend. These range from tasking police forces to beef up security for their high-profile politicians to providing funding for the private sector. Some suggested that MPs should address their constituents’ concerns from behind a plate of toughened glass. Others said surgeries should only take place online.
I am unsure what Sir David would have made of these suggestions but think it likely he would have argued for a proportionate response. Meeting people face to face will always carry risks, but most politicians regard this as central to their role. As men and women fairly and transparently elected by the people it would seem extraordinary to us not to be able to meet freely with others from all walks of life. As for the glass screen suggestion, it would not protect an MP before or after a surgery, or any of the other times they might come into contact with people.
In any case politicians are not the only people who come into potentially dangerous situations. Assaults on our nurses, paramedics and police officers are sadly all too common and while we can minimise the risks we will never be able to get rid of them entirely.
Those who choose to attack our democratic system by resorting to violence want to prevent it working. Their twisted ideologies do not stand up to public scrutiny and an over-reaction to this incident and a widening of the gap between the public and those of us who represent them is precisely what they want.
I, and Devon and Cornwall councillors and MPs, have been subjected to aggressive language which has sometimes spilled over into threat. While it is right that police investigate these threats thoroughly, the dialogue we have with our communities must remain in place and cannot be undermined even slightly.
I also think it is incumbent upon us all to take extra care around the language we use and to be more Respectful of one another, even, or perhaps especially, if we do not share the same views.
As a Commissioner who works across Devon and Cornwall I am used to working with politicians of different colours. The truth of the matter is that we are often able to find common ground in our ultimate aims, especially when it comes to reducing crime in our communities and protecting the vulnerable from exploitation.
Unfortunately the national political dialogue in recent months and years has coarsened and can be aggressive and polarised. Sir David’s legacy is a rich one, for the constituency he worked so hard for, for the animal charities he campaigned for and for his family. Their request is that ‘some good come from this tragedy’.
As they mourn they have asked that people set aside their differences and show kindness and love to all.