The killing of Conservative MP Sir David Amess as he carried out his work helping constituents in south-east England was a grim reminder of the risks facing parliamentarians in Britain’s increasingly bitter political climate.
Amess’ violent death on the Essex coast came just over five years after the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, but since then the level of hatred aimed towards the country’s elected representatives has increased sharply.
Police data show there were 678 crimes against MPs reported between 2016 and 2020, but many such offences go unreported.
For certain MPs, threats of murder and rape have become commonplace: a daily onslaught of aggressive emails has been accompanied by the provision of alarm buttons in their homes and, on some occasions, police protection.
From the 1970s through to the 1990s, the threat of violence stemming from the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland was ever-present in UK politics. Four MPs were murdered — the last being former Tory minister Ian Gow, killed by a car bomb set by the Provisional IRA.
But the violence has persisted after the Troubles. In 2000 Nigel Jones, then Liberal Democrat MP for Cheltenham, was severely injured after being attacked in his constituency office by a man with a sword.
Andrew Pennington, a local councillor, was killed in the same attack while defending Jones. Jones said on Friday that more security lessons should have been learned from previous attacks.
In 2010, Labour MP Stephen Timms was stabbed twice in the abdomen in his east London constituency by Roshonara Choudhry, an extremist who wanted “to get revenge for the people of Iraq”.
But the murder of Cox in 2016 by a neo-Nazi in her Batley and Spen constituency in West Yorkshire reflected a new violent thread running through British politics, often incubated and spread online.
Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a non-governmental organisation, said politics had become a much more dangerous pursuit.
“Language, behaviours and attitudes around politics and towards politicians have degenerated in recent years — things that used to be unacceptable a generation ago are now commonplace,” he added.
Threats and attacks against politicians in the UK are not unique. In 2019 Walter Lübcke, a regional politician in Kassel, Germany, was shot in the head in his garden by a rightwing extremist.
In 2018 Jair Bolsonaro, now the president of Brazil, was stabbed during a campaign rally. The riot on Capitol Hill in the final days of the Trump administration highlighted the violence lurking in US democracy.
But some of the toxins running through UK politics have very British characteristics. Brexit saw abrasive language deployed, as respectful disagreement descended into talk of “treason” and “betrayal”.
Jess Phillips, a pro-European Labour MP, said she had received “lots” of death threats at that time. “There’s at least ten people threatening me in some way or another . . . death or violence of some sort,” she added.
Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn’s leftwing leadership of Labour coincided with a period of harsh rhetoric against moderate figures in the party, plus anti-Semitism.
In 2019 Angela Rayner, now Labour’s deputy leader, called on people to disagree with each other respectfully. “We have to stop the personal attacks,” she said.
But the coarsening of rhetoric has persisted, with Rayner herself telling activists at last month’s Labour conference: “We cannot get any worse than a bunch of scum, homophobic, racist, misogynistic, absolute vile.” She was referring to Boris Johnson and the Conservatives.
The parliamentary liaison and investigation team, set up by the Metropolitan Police in 2016 following the death of Cox, recorded 678 crimes against MPs up to 2020. These included 582 reports of malicious communications, 46 cases of harassment, and nine relating to terrorism.
Jacqui Smith, the former Labour home secretary who chairs the Jo Cox Foundation set up after her murder, said the attacks against parliamentarians threatened one of the fundamental cornerstones of British democracy: the ability of constituents to come to their MPs with their local concerns.
Online abuse tipped easily into real-life attacks and terrorism, she added. “That’s the responsibility that everybody has, to think about the way they talk about and describe politicians.”
Political focus groups find that voters sometimes respond to a particular issue by suggesting the answer is to cut the pay of parliamentarians, reflecting a belief that the likes of Amess, MP for Southend West, earned a lot more than their basic salary of £81,932.
Amess, in his amiable way, wrote in his 2021 memoir about his sadness of the increasing risk at constituency surgeries.
“These increasing attacks have rather spoilt the great British tradition of the people openly meeting their elected politicians,” he wrote.
“We all make ourselves readily available to our constituents and are often dealing with members of the public who have mental health problems — it could happen to any of us.”