CAN any of us even begin to imagine being Lady Amess?
She’s had the shock and shared experience of many in unexpectedly losing her husband, aged 69. A less common experience is having to grieve with her family while the world’s media and social media voyeuristically share their grief – in comment just such as this column.
However, more unusually, she lost him in a brutal public assault by a man with a knife and a twisted mind, religious belief or ideology – or perhaps all three. She shares that experience with an elite few, such as Brendan Cox, the widower of Jo, murdered in similar circumstances in 2016.
Unlike a number of my colleagues, I never had the good fortune to meet Sir David. By all accounts, it seems, a man with a big smile and a sunny disposition driven by a will to serve. But in my nine years in political life, I’ve met hundreds like him: democratically elected representatives from among the parliaments and assemblies of the British Isles and Commonwealth, members of the European Parliament and members of Congress in the United States. They hail from a multitude of political traditions and cultures; their politics span every shade of political colour, from left to right and everything in between. Agree or disagree with them, they share the same desire to help those they represent. And they share something else – a lack of security.
In the United Kingdom, only the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and a handful of current and former office holders have a permanent personal protection force around them. For the remaining 99.9% of elected representatives across the land, they may have security of varied quality and effectiveness in their parliament, assemblies or other principal place of work, but they will have nothing when they step outside that cordon and do what you and I do to get home – walk, cycle, drive or take the bus, train or tube.
Members of Parliament hold regular meet-the-public ‘surgeries’ in their constituencies, normally on a Friday (when the House of Commons’ business is at its quietest) at their open-to-all constituency office. If their home address is not in the public domain anyway, a few minutes on the internet will probably reveal it. As they go about their lives – dropping the children at school, shopping in the supermarket or going out for an evening to the cinema or restaurant – they will be recognised. They will be stopped by people they know; they will be stopped by people who they don’t know. That’s what they signed up to, whether they knew it or not. That’s the job. How can you represent the people if you don’t or can’t engage with them?
As Lady Amess contemplates facing her latter years alone as a widow, surely no one would be surprised or begrudge her if she asked herself, ‘Was it worth it?’
Was her husband going about his job in the only way he knew how, worth the life of her partner and father to her children?
But she won’t be the only one asking that question. The ripple effect is unquantifiable, but it will be huge. Literally, tens of thousands of potentially worthy candidates and their families will now ask themselves, ‘But is it worth the physical risk to me and my family?’ They already have to contend with exposing themselves and their families to public profile and scrutiny. They will try to do the best job they can, in the face of a hostile media and toxic social media world that panders to and feeds a lazy and easy narrative that all politicians are useless and ‘only in it for themselves and what they can get out of it’ – despite the reality being many will be sacrificing significant career and business opportunities to serve. Now they have to factor in the reality of physical threat too.
Who can blame those who choose to step back rather than forward in those circumstances? And for every potential candidate who makes that rational choice, we – the rest of us – are much the poorer for it. Our representative democracy is harmed by it. Candidate choice and quality will decline by default. And that will feed through to poorer policy making and government, which will result in more public criticism, feeding a vicious negative loop.
Sitting in the relative comfort and security of the Channel Islands without the same recognisably divisive forces at work, it would be easy to imagine that this assessment and the risks don’t really have much application here. That would be mistaken.
When Guernsey gears up for its next general election, potential candidates will be asking themselves, ‘Is it worth it?’ And the backcloth of how politicians are treated and regarded by society will inevitably feed into that decision-making process. The days when politicians were deferentially held in high regard has long passed. The loss of unwarranted deference is not to be mourned but the pendulum has surely swung too far the other way.
All is not lost. We can all choose to give up and give in to the negative forces – whether they be a man wielding a knife or a keyboard warrior pouring bile from the comfort of their own home. Or we can resist and challenge it wherever and whenever we see it, with politeness and kindness.
In my experience, whenever I respond online to those who post negative comment about me, more often than not, that engagement is welcomed and supported by those observing the exchange – and the original author often backs off or, sometimes if I’m lucky, backs down.
The problem is there is not enough time in the day to identify and respond to all such comments. It also takes significant time and mental strength. That is where others can help by filling the void and pushing back against rude and abusive commentators, challenging them to evidence their absurd and unfounded claims, whether that be of corruption or worse.
Lady Amess’s loss is not just a personal and family tragedy, it is a tragedy that touches and harms us all. We will honour Sir David’s memory not by wringing our hands in despair at the futility of his loss but by redoubling our efforts to ensure that all those who represent us – or aspire to do so – know that whether or not we agree with their politics, we respect and admire their desire to serve their communities and remind them that what they are doing is fundamentally a good thing.
This column was originally published in the Jersey Evening Post.