Leaders from across the political spectrum came together Saturday to pay their respects to a long-serving British lawmaker who was stabbed to death in what police say was a terrorist-related attack. His death has reopened questions about the security of lawmakers as they go about their work.
The slaying Friday of the 69-year-old Conservative member of Parliament David Amess during a regular meeting with local voters has caused shock and anxiety across Britain’s political spectrum, just five years after Labour Party lawmaker Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right extremist in her small-town constituency.
“He was killed doing a job that he loves, serving his own constituents as an elected democratic member and, of course, acts of this are absolutely wrong, and we cannot let that get in the way of our functioning democracy,” British Home Secretary Priti Patel said after she joined others, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, to pay tribute to Amess at the church where he died.
Patel said she has convened meetings with the Speaker of the House of Commons, police departments and U.K. security services “to make sure that all measures are being put in place for the security of MPs so that they can carry on with their duties as elected democratic members.”
On Saturday, in an echo of the political unity that emerged after Cox’s murder, Johnson of the Conservatives, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, and the non-partisan speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, arrived at the church where Amess died and laid flowers.
Amess was attacked around midday Friday during his constituency meeting in a church in Leigh-on-Sea, a town 40 miles (62 kilometers) east of London. He suffered multiple stab wounds. Paramedics tried without success to save him. Police have arrested a 25-year-old British man for the attack.
The Metropolitan Police has described the attack as terrorism and said its early investigation “revealed a potential motivation linked to Islamist extremism.” It did not provide details about the basis for that assessment. As part of the investigation, officers were searching two locations in the London area.
Amess, who leaves a wife and five children behind and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2015, died doing an important part of his job — helping out residents in his seaside constituency of Southend West, which incorporates Leigh-on-Sea.
Under Britain’s parliamentary system, lawmakers have direct links with their local voters, often hosting open meetings, or “surgeries.” The meetings often take place in local facilities such as churches and community halls, and are publicly advertised. Amess himself posted online where he would be hosting his surgery on Friday. It was open to all.
“The reason he wanted to use the church was because he wanted to be where the people were,” said Rev. Clifford Newman at the Belfairs Methodist Church where Amess was killed.
“And if you come to somewhere which is in the locality like Belfairs, as opposed to some ivory tower somewhere, people are more likely to feel easier, freer and more likely to open up to him,” he added.
At the meetings, topics raised can range from national matters such as the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic to more mundane issues such as requests for speed bumps on busy roads or a dispute over a neighbor’s fence. While members of Parliament don’t necessarily have the power to fix the problems directly, they can pressure officials at the national and local levels to get things done.
“I feel as if I have lost a family member. I feel that he was the family of Southend, he was the leader of Southend,” resident Erica Keane, 69, said. “And he was everywhere! He was at the football pitches, he was in the choirs, he was in the pubs.He was everywhere and he was Southend.”
Amess was clearly a popular lawmaker, winning 10 out of 10 elections since he was first sent to parliament in 1983. He was a social conservative on capital punishment and abortion. While never serving as a government minister, Amess was considered a fixer, a lawmaker able to forge alliances across the political divide.
Friday’s killing has renewed concern about the risks politicians run as they go about their work representing voters. British politicians generally are not given police protection when they meet with their constituents — unlike the high-security measures that are in place in Parliament.
But the vitriol directed towards them has escalated in recent years, with many blaming the more polarized atmosphere on social media and the political divisions stoked by Britain’s recent departure from the European Union.
“As members of Parliament, we want to be accessible and approachable, but recently there has been more and more violent abuse,” Labour lawmaker Tanmanjeet Dhesi said.
Tobias Ellwood, a leading Conservative lawmaker who gave first aid to a police officer stabbed at the gates of Parliament in 2017, said face-to-face meetings with voters should be temporarily halted and replaced with online interactions.
Veteran Labour lawmaker Harriet Harman also said she planned to write to Johnson to ask him to back a non-partisan conference to review the safety of parliamentarians.
“I don’t think anybody wants to go to a situation where the police are vetting individual constituents who come and see us, but I’m sure there is a safer way to go about our business,” Harman told BBC radio.
“Since Jo Cox’s tragic killing, we’ve had changes in our home security, we’ve had changes in security in Parliament, but we haven’t looked at the issue of how we go about that important business in our constituency, but do it in a safe way,” Harman said. “I think we must do that now.”
Last year, in his own book “Ayes & Ears: A Survivor’s Guide to Westminster,” Amess wrote about how Cox had been murdered “in the most barbaric fashion imaginable” and how security issues could spoil “the great British tradition” of voters’ easy access to their elected leaders.
He warned that “it could happen to any of us.”