Last Friday afternoon I had a series of appointments with constituents – an MP’s surgery. This isn’t unusual. I receive many hundreds of emails every week asking for help.
On Friday there was someone concerned about the gas situation, someone who wanted reassurance about refugees, a footpath problem, a parental care issue and so on.
Before the surgery began I heard that my colleague David Amess had been attacked as he was doing exactly the same thing in his constituency. When it ended I learned he was dead.
I knew David well. He was a charming, gentle, family man and, like the overwhelming majority of MPs, took his role seriously. Part of that role is being available to constituents, businesses, schools and local groups. He was a recognisable face in his constituency which he had represented since 1983. So even when not ‘on duty’ – while shopping, enjoying leisure time with his family, going to church – people would recognise him and stop him for a word or two.
All MPs would recognise this. I certainly do. The accessibility to representatives is a building block in our democracy and must be preserved, but it makes it impossible to guarantee security from someone determined to do harm. What we need to do is to remove the personal unpleasantness from our public life that causes some to contemplate violent action; to tackle the problem at its source.
I should expand on that.
I disagree with many of the views held by the opposition in parliament. I disagree with some of the views held by colleagues in government. That does not make those I disagree with ‘scum’ or ‘evil’ or somehow less human than I am. Or vice versa. It just means we disagree and that is why we have parliament and free speech – so that we can debate those things upon which we disagree. And it can be done amicably as the many deep friendships across the floor in the Commons proves.
But I am afraid the personal and toxic narrative – particularly on social media – is out there.
Since David was killed I have had some kind messages from complete strangers just to say how much they deplore what happened. On the flipside of that coin, some online have already reverted to personal insults variously calling me a ‘parasite’ or ‘spineless’.
My team have called the police because of threatening behaviour. On one occasion I received nine letters from the same person in one day saying that ‘what was done to Jo Cox will be done to you’. On another occasion someone emailed late at night to tell me that they knew where I lived and then emailed a few hours later to say ‘I hope you’ve got good security there’.
There is much more but it is all mild compared to what some of my female and ethnic minority colleagues face. It is appalling what they have to endure, genuinely shocking.
Over the weekend MPs and their families have been sharing stories of threats. Not doing so to garner pity or sympathy, just to highlight how it is. Abuse is too common across all people-facing professions. It is normal now to see signs in shops pointing out that abuse will not be tolerated. We often hear of attacks on public sector workers – teachers, doctors, nurses or on transport. They will all, to a lesser or greater extent, have similar stories to tell.
The reason for sharing these experiences is to demonstrate the need to learn how to disagree about issues without demonising one another. And that doesn’t matter whether it is MPs talking about other MPs or members of the public talking about other members of the public.
If we continue to dehumanise those with whom we differ then sometimes someone, for whatever reason, will be pushed over the edge and commit a violent act. The step to violence is a smaller step when someone is portrayed as a lesser person or vermin.
It is time to dial down the personal attacks and concentrate on debating the issues. If we don’t then I am afraid this violent cycle – Nigel Jones, Stephen Timms, Jo Cox, David Amess – will simply continue.