From across the Atlantic, it seems that American presidents are gunned down, or at the very least shot at in anger, with steady regularity. None have been hit in my lifetime, but enough have been attacked in living memory for it to be a minor cliché of the office. By contrast, only one British prime minister has been assassinated — and it was over 200 years ago; and his name, Spencer Perceval, is remembered almost solely in light of that fact.
Perceval was shot as he crossed the lobby of the House of Commons on May 11, 1812, by a lone obsessive named John Bellingham. The prime minister died quickly. His assassin did not try to escape and was hanged, after a brief inquest and trial, in short order.
That is not to say that Britain’s politics is not violent. In the past five years, two members of the House of Commons (MPs) have been murdered in office, and notably, while meeting with their constituents. Meanwhile, no sitting member of the U.S. Congress has been assassinated in more than 40 years. The most recent serious attack on a U.S. federal legislator was in 2017, when Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana was shot in the hip while practicing for the annual congressional baseball game. Six years earlier, Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona was shot in the head at a constituent event.
The most recent political murder in Britain took place last week. The man killed was my MP, David Amess. Amess was a long-standing Conservative MP, an emblematic one in some ways. He represented Basildon in the Commons between 1983 and 1997, and his surprising victory in 1992 was a vital moment: It showed that the Conservatives were on course to win the night against predictions. He lost Basildon in the Labour landslide of 1997, but Amess was afterward the MP for Southend West, first elected to represent me less than a year after I was born. Amess was knighted in 2015 for his political service and became Sir David.
He was stabbed multiple times in a local church while meeting with voters from his district — attacked by a 25-year-old man named as Ali Harbi Ali in what has been declared an act of terrorism.
Amess received medical treatment but died at the scene. He was married and had five children.
Like almost all, I suspect, of Amess’ constituents, I knew him a little and saw him locally; occasionally, we exchanged a few words. He distributed leaflets outside schools I attended and knocked on doors in streets near my house. To gain work experience, I volunteered in his parliamentary office for a week while I was a high school student.
I can’t claim to have really known him — so few of us truly know our representatives. But he was a constant local presence, and appeared in every edition of the local paper. Now there might be a memorial issue, followed by silence.
In the 19th century, despite the aloofness of the ruling class in Britain, politicians were often out among the people.
They were public men (and at that time they were always men). Unguarded, they addressed large, rowdy meetings several times a day during elections and occasionally took part in demonstrations and riots. For all that, political murder was uncommon and shocking.
When Lord Frederick Cavendish was killed at Phoenix Park in Dublin on May 6, 1882, he had just arrived in the city to take up the post of chief secretary to the lord lieutenant of Ireland. His murderers were Irish nationalists, members of a group called the Invincibles. They had plotted to assassinate Thomas Henry Burke, head of the London-appointed Irish civil service, and Lord Frederick happened to be out walking with Burke at the time. The assassins fled after attacking the two with surgical knives. That they had murdered the new chief secretary as well as their target was incidental.
The murder was met with hysteria in London. Incensed, Lord Frederick’s elder brother, Lord Hartington, split with the Liberals of William Ewart Gladstone, who had been attempting to grant Ireland Home Rule. The murders set the cause of Irish self-government back decades, collapsed Gladstone’s Liberal government and led to the creation of a new political party. It did not, however, change politicians’ accessibility to the public.
Forty years later, in 1922, another MP was assassinated in the name of Ireland. Field Marshal Henry Wilson was shot outside his home in Eaton Square by members of the newly formed Irish Republican Army.
Beginning more than a half century later, four more MPs would be assassinated by Irish republicans. In 1979, Airey Neave was murdered beneath Westminster itself by a car bomb. Robert Bradford was shot when he met his constituents in Belfast in 1981. In 1984, much of the ruling Conservative Party was almost murdered when the IRA bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton. Five people were killed in the attack, of whom one, Anthony Berry, was a member of Parliament. In 1990, Ian Gow was assassinated by an IRA car bomb in East Sussex.
These were part of a larger spate of republican terrorism across the British Isles. Although a number of MPs were killed amid such a massive and protracted campaign of violence, which claimed many hundreds of lives, they were merely a few targets among many.
Irish republican terrorism waned by the millennium, although, especially with the advent of the war on terror, attempts on the lives of politicians did not end.
Britons have a strange relationship with their parliamentarians.
MPs are at once legislators whose actions shape matters of national importance and slightly cheesy local mascots. They’re not entirely respected, as is the politician’s lot, but as holders of public office, they have remained visible and accessible to members of the community. The requirements of the job are sometimes undignified.
Some MPs are famed for spending their entire budget of parliamentary time talking about niche local issues — boasting about one of their region’s local delicacies, for example, or talking up a particularly well-performing school on their patch. They are always inviting the relevant minister to visit.
Amess was a great advocate of my hometown, Southend-on-Sea. His grandest campaign was for Southend to be formally awarded the status of a city — something only afforded to a few settlements in Britain, often those with ancient cathedrals. Southend is big and quite populous, but as a seaside resort of Victorian vintage, it seems its glory days are behind it. Amess’ campaign often felt like an uphill battle, but he ultimately achieved it – on Monday, Britain’s prime minister announced Southend would become a city, in Amess’ honour.
In Parliament, MPs are often expected to act as tour guides, conducting school groups (including one I was part of at the age of 16) around the Palace of Westminster. In normal times, MPs are on their honor to attend inexhaustible local events, from soccer matches to village fetes. It’s only proper that they buy a respectable number of raffle tickets.
They get a lot of letters from their constituents and must send a lot of Christmas cards. Amess threw an annual tea party for constituents who were centenarians.
All this and they must still find time for politics. MPs often softly boast about their time wandering the streets of their community, “canvassing” as it’s called, talking to constituents “on the doorstep” in a bid to gauge public opinion and to campaign on their own behalf.
Perhaps most emblematically, MPs are expected to hold “surgeries”: regular one-on-one meetings with the public to discuss individual concerns and issues with which people need help. These are unglamorous in the extreme. They are often held in village halls and centrally located churches. People take turns approaching their MP with plastic bags filled with paper and their problems. Time is short, and the subjects at hand are often difficult.
It is dull and tiring work. Work that, in this century, has become increasingly dangerous.
In January 2000, Nigel (later Lord) Jones was attacked at a surgery by a local man he had previously tried to help. The constituent attacked Jones with a sword and killed Jones’ assistant Andrew Pennington in the attempt. Pennington saved Jones’ life at the cost of his own.
Ten years later, Roshonara Choudhry, a university dropout who had watched sermons by Anwar al-Awlaki on YouTube, stabbed the former minister Stephen Timms twice in the stomach with a kitchen knife at a surgery in East London. At the time, his injuries were described as life-threatening, but Timms survived.
It wasn’t that long ago. But by the time 2016 rolled around, it seems Britain’s media, its politicians and the public had convinced themselves that this sort of thing no longer happened.
How else to explain the terrible shock, the bitter recognition, which accompanied the murder of Jo Cox, a young Labour MP, at the height of a nasty, palpitating referendum campaign?
In 2016, Cox was brutally shot and stabbed by a constituent as she arrived to conduct a surgery. A passerby who tried to come to her aid was terribly wounded in the attempt, but later recovered. Cox’s killer was a Nazi and a maniac. The contrast he presented to her mildness and public courage was profound.
In an instant, after it was announced that Cox had died, campaigning in the referendum was suspended. It was as though the nation had shocked itself briefly into silence. The country saw the look in its own eye.
The tributes paid to Cox were effusive. She was a charming young mother, someone who had supported some unpopular humanitarian causes. She epitomized the potential lost by political violence.
But the realism that should have followed her death was of a hysterical nature. Instead of discussing in practical terms how better to protect public servants, the country became bitterly divided once more. Not on the nature of Cox’s death, per se, but instead on the charge of who was most to blame for spreading hate and seeding division. And who in public life her murderer could be said to have most resembled.
Other efforts by far-right groups to kill members of Parliament — notably the unsuccessful attempt by a group called National Action to murder Rosie Cooper in 2017 — were intercepted by the authorities and played out in the press. But the subject soon dried out.
In time, slowly, the lessons that could have been learned from Cox’s death were forgotten.
As the war on terror ground on, and terrorism in Western countries transformed and mutated, public buildings in Britain became increasingly impenetrable. To enter Parliament or the Supreme Court, or any government ministry in Whitehall, you need to go through security befitting an airport. Your belongings are scanned; your pass is checked; you are patted down for weapons. Armed police, a rarity in Britain, stand around key sites cradling their long guns.
After the bombing of a concert in Manchester in 2017, security around stadiums was increased apace. You need to be searched and scanned to get into an arena.
When the Islamic State group began advocating ramming attacks using vehicles, and after some attacks of this kind in London, government buildings of all kinds began to be surrounded by “defensive architecture.” Some were elegantly disguised barriers, like the ones on College Green outside Parliament; others were crude concrete slabs. Bollards grew out of the ground across the country, as civic centers were given protective shields of street furniture. Government buildings have thrown up rings of self-protecting steel.
All the while, MPs continued to meet their constituents in dingy halls and churches. No one was ever patted down or searched. There was never time. MPs and their staff remained at risk, the most visible and vulnerable public servants — de facto ambassadors for a state many blame for their troubles or despise for its policies — until, once again, the inevitable occurred. We do not yet know why.
Amess had a long political career, and over that time he accumulated an idiosyncratic collection of personal causes. He was a devout Catholic and a supporter of animal rights. After hearing from a constituent of the pains and dangers of her endometriosis, he zealously took up the case of those with the condition in the House of Commons. In a country of animal lovers, he is already being remembered as a great friend of dogs.
His murder might have consequences other than memorial. British politicians sometimes complain about the way they are treated by the public and their parties, the social media abuse, the long hours, the strains politics places on family life and parenthood; and some of them whisper about low pay. But all of them want to see and meet with their constituents.
It is their tradition to maintain — one that has survived the pandemic, numerous assassinations and campaigns of bombing and terror, and avoided the steady entrenchment that has turned Downing Street, Westminster and Whitehall into fortresses and ministers into recipients of close protection.
But can that tradition survive one more attack, one more murder, that a few simple measures might have prevented? Questions will now be asked of the security state: questions of whether this tide of violence could grow in strength and magnitude, and what combating it might mean for traditionally close ties between MPs and their constituents.