“They’re out of touch!”
“They never listen!”
“They just don’t get it!”
These are the standard responses whenever someone mentions British MPs, as reflexive and ritualistic as the phrases of a familiar liturgy. The trouble is, they are nonsense. Think about what a politician’s job involves. Knocking on doors, leafleting at railway stations, dealing with emails and letters from members of the public, holding regular “constituency surgeries” around their districts. How many professions are more in touch?
It was during a constituency surgery that Sir David Amess, the long-serving British Conservative MP, was murdered by a knifeman. He was a kind and generous man, always ready to help MPs from other parties, never much interested in advancing his own career. Everyone who knew him liked him, including this columnist. As the initial shock faded, MPs began to ask whether the casual belittling of parliamentarians, the unthinking attribution of any difference in opinion to their supposed remoteness or corruption, was making them targets.
Political assassinations, after all, used to be almost unthinkable in Britain. In 1812, Spencer Perceval, a largely forgotten British prime minister, was shot in the House of Commons by a businessman who blamed the government for his losses. Fully 70 years passed before the next MP was murdered, Lord Frederick Cavendish, stabbed to death in Dublin. Another 40 elapsed before the third, Sir Henry Wilson, a distinguished World War One general, shot outside his London house. Both men were victims of Irish republican terrorism.
Later, the frequency increased. Airey Neave, a World War Two hero, was killed by a car bomb at Westminster in 1979; the Rev. Robert Bradford, an Ulster Unionist, was shot at a constituency surgery in Belfast in 1981; Sir Anthony Berry died when the Conservative Party conference in Brighton was bombed in 1984; Ian Gow was killed by a car bomb at his home in 1990. All four MPs were also victims of Irish republican terrorism.
In 2016, Jo Cox, a mother of young children, was stabbed by a neo-Nazi. Then, last week, Amess brought that grim tally to nine — six of them in the past 42 years and two in the past five years. By way of context, some 60 serving U.S. politicians, including four presidents, were murdered over the same period (in most cases, as if to emphasize American particularism, with guns).
Let’s ask the question. Has the dehumanization of politicians made them more vulnerable? The homicide rate in Britain (as in most countries) has been in long-term decline, with an uptick in the last four decades of the 20th century followed by a rapid fall. Is the countercyclical increase in the killing of MPs a consequence of an angrier and more polarized political culture in which politicians with a different point of view are treated as enemies rather than opponents?
We should be careful not to oversimplify. The crimes committed in the name of Irish republican violence were products of a peculiar political moment. Loners who fall prey to extremist ideologies — white supremacism in the case of Cox’s killer and what looks like Islamist fundamentalism in the case of Amess’s — are not a new phenomenon.
Nor should we rush to legislate. A Conservative MP called Mark Francois, understandably upset by his friend’s murder, called for a “David’s law” that would tighten the rules on anonymous online abuse. But we already have laws covering incitement to violence and, in any case, there is no reason to believe that the murderer in this case was motivated by nasty tweets.
Still, look at what is happening across Western societies. Politics is becoming more tribal, more intense, more rancorous. Elections are treated as an all-or-nothing affair, with neither winners nor losers expected to display magnanimity. Voting is no longer a transactional decision or a civic duty; it is increasingly bound up with people’s sense of their identity.
Perhaps we should not be surprised if these trends make politics more physical. We know that people are ready to suffer and inflict violence when they feel their identity is threatened. Historically, that violence tended to be carried out in the name of religious or tribal loyalties. Today, religion is in decline, and tribal identification tends to be partisan rather than regional or ethnic.
It was telling that, in the immediate aftermath of Amess’s murder, many of those posting sympathy felt obliged to preface their remarks with, “Whatever you thought of his politics…” Even in death, he was, to many, a right-wing pro-lifer rather than a public servant who had fallen in the service of his constituents. And that, deep down, is the problem.