An American visitor to the British Conservative Party conference this month was speechless and singled out. “There’s the Prime Minister taking selfies,” he cried. ” He is fair. . . to go for a walk. Anyone can go to him! As Boris Johnson drove the ‘grip and grin’ tour with his fans, surrounded by a small group of guards, the man said wistfully: “There is no way this can happen in America.”
The scene captured the low-key nature of British politicians compared to the safety walks of their American counterparts. Until recent decades, MPs did not have dedicated staff or their own offices. They still roam the streets of Westminster and their constituencies are hardly noticed, often unaided. Only a handful of the most senior ministers enjoy full police protection.
All MPs, whether prime minister or new backbench MPs, conduct constituency operations. About once a week, each member of the House of Commons returns to meet their constituents in cold church halls, small village libraries, cafes and community centers. As the social function of MPs has developed, the importance of these meetings has also increased.
The first brutal challenge to this system in decades came on June 16, 2016. Labor MP Jo Cox was leaving her cabinet in Yorkshire when she was murdered by a far-right terrorist. Last Friday, when Sir David Amess was stabbed to death while sitting in a church in Essex, it was a potentially deadly attack on the innocence of the way Britain is doing Politics.
The tragic death of Cox and Amess – along with a handful of other surgical attacks – in these very ordinary constituencies highlights what British politics stand to lose. Both MPs were dedicated local champions, in love with the cities that elected them and readily available to their constituents. Their policies may have been very distant, but the couple represented the best of parliamentary democracy.
After the two murders, however, change is inevitable. UK Home Secretary Priti Patel is considering plans to increase security, including police protection during surgeries, pre-booked appointments and airport-style checks. Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, who was assaulted at the Tory party conference, agrees police protection is needed, but insists access to MPs must be preserved. “While I am sure that it is possible to achieve better security, especially during our surgeries, nothing should come between us and our constituents,” he wrote over the weekend.
Another option is to organize the surgeries in the offices of the deputies, where the control is more strict. This is easy in geographically small urban seats, but tricky in large rural ridings. Some, like the Conservatives’ Tobias Ellwood, believe all surgeries should go virtual, as they did during the pandemic.
There is no single reason for the attacks, but there will be questions for the British state, given that the 25-year-old arrested for the murder of Amess has reportedly been referred to the anti-radicalization program Prevent ( it is not known if he committed with this). Lone wolf attacks are the most difficult for security services to foil. MPs are already lining up to ask if Prevent, run by cash-strapped local councils, should be reviewed.
UK political discourse is also thickening. The temperature for debate has risen dramatically over the past six years, through the Brexit referendum and its messy fallout, and two general elections. MPs from all walks of life say their inboxes and social media feeds have turned into bile pits. A senior Labor MP said: “Reading everything that comes my way, it hardly makes you feel human”.
Social media platforms have a lot to answer by allowing anonymous trolls to use toxic and often violent language against politicians. Amess, a pro-Brexit right-wing Tory, was widely respected by his opponents as a kind and humorous man – the kind of person who should be in parliament. Such people should not turn away from politics in the future.
But the solution should not rest on restricting the interactions of MPs with their constituents. Those who blame politicians for being out of touch don’t understand that their regular surgeries make them more in touch than most realize. Changes are needed to save the system, but the constituency link is Britain’s most precious gem of democracy. It must be preserved.