David Amess: MPs attend service at St Margaret's Church
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Sir David, Tory MP for Southend West, was stabbed multiple times last Friday at a church in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, where he was about to hold one of his regular surgeries for constituents. Despite the frantic efforts of paramedics at the scene, he died of his injuries, becoming the second MP to be killed in five years after Labour’s Jo Cox was killed just prior to the Brexit referendum in 2016.
For Eugene L Wolfe, author of Dangerous Seats: Parliamentary Violence in the United Kingdom, the latest incident underlines both the increased threat which politicians face, and their sheer vulnerability, suggesting the web had “definitely” made things worse.
He told Express.co.uk: “Social media allows like-minded people to form communities and, at least sometimes, radicalise each other.
“It permits those with a grudge to make anonymous public threats that can encourage imitation.
“And it fosters the dissemination of private information – about where an MP lives or the schools her children attend – that both facilitate attacks and increase a sense of vulnerability even if nothing further is done.”
Mr Wolfe said it was difficult to get a sense of the scale of the problem because neither Parliament nor the Metropolitan Police compile statistics in relation to threats to MPs.
In early 2019, Parliamentary Security Director Eric Hepburn testified that the volume of online abuse directed at MPs was ‘absolutely skyrocketing’ in recent years
Eugene L Wolfe
However, he added: “In early 2019, Parliamentary Security Director Eric Hepburn testified that the volume of online abuse directed at MPs was ‘absolutely skyrocketing’ in recent years.
“Women, and members of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities were said to be receiving the ‘lion’s share’ of the abuse and threats. Louise Mensch, Stella Creasy and Claire Perry are just three MPs recently in the news for being menaced via social media.”
Mr Wolfe said he was not aware of any specific studies indicating the threat of violence was deterring people from public service – but stressed he “would not be surprised” if that turned out to be the case.
He explained: “The problem is not just confined to MPs. In recent years the news has been replete with stories of a rise in violence against those who deal with the public, from doctors and nurses to solicitors, to teachers (from both students and parents), to binmen, and even, in one case, to Father Christmas!
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“Signs warning that ‘assaults on staff will not be tolerated’ have become almost ubiquitous. There is/was even such a sign in Westminster Palace, on the door of the Parliamentary Standards Office.
“In short, MPs are hardly alone in facing increased threats from the public.”
Mr Wolfe’s book examines the history of violence against politicians, not least the assassination of former Prime Minister Spencer Percival in the lobby of the House of Commons in 1812.
He said: “In days of yore, unpopular politicians might occasionally be harassed on the streets or find a mob outside their homes, but in general their interactions with the general public were quite limited.
“This began to change in the 19th century as a series of reforms increased the electorate, thereby putting more pressure on MPs to be visible to potential voters.”
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One way to do so was by holding public meetings, although this practise was eventually abandoned as they became susceptible to what was known as “rowdyism.”
Mr Wolfe added: “Although politicians continued to hold meetings, they increasingly sought to screen those who attended. This has not solved the problem.
“In the last few decades, MPs have been attacked at public meetings at a rate much higher than in the past.
“The vast majority of these incidents have been intended to humiliate or draw attention to a cause; the weapons of choice include eggs, chocolate eclairs, and custard.
“But some attacks on politicians have been much more serious: during the Troubles nine UK or Northern Ireland MPs were assassinated.
He said: “At best, the growth of surgeries puts MPs into greater contact with those who are often irate and frustrated.
“At worst, it exposes them to those who want to harm them due to mental illness or ideological extremism.
“Since 1982, when Michael O’Halloran was stabbed by a man wielding a butcher knife, at least five MPs have injured in their surgeries.”
Mr Wolfe also suggested potential candidates were likely being put off by other factors other than the specific threat of violence.
He said: “Parliamentary salaries are low compared to similar white-collar jobs in the private sector, but the public scrutiny that comes with a seat is much more intense.
“The hours are long, which tends to play havoc with relationships.
“And the ability of a backbencher to make a meaningful difference by, say, introducing a bill that becomes law, is much less than it was even a few decades ago.
“Still, there seems no shortage of people willing to stand for parliament. The murders of Jo Cox and David Amess seem unlikely to change this, so long as tragedies of this sort remain extremely rare.”
The real question related to quality rather than quantity, Mr Wolfe claimed, adding: “That is, to what extent will violence, combined with the other deterrents to becoming an MP, dissuade the country’s most talented people from pursuing a life of public service, something seen as an obligation not that long ago?”
Dangerous Seats: Parliamentary Violence in the United Kingdom was published by Amberley Publishing on October 15
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