After Amess: how did Britain get here?

By David Osland

The murder of an MP is one of the few political events capable of uniting everyone involved in politics, in horror as much as in condemnation.

Many activists number parliamentarians among their personal friends. Perhaps your partner is a councillor who holds regular surgeries in the local library, without any security presence whatsoever? Perhaps your kid is interning at Westminster and attends events where politicians meet the public?

And even if none of those things hold, every one of us appreciates the moral enormity of elected representatives losing their life in the performance of elective office, as Jo Cox did five years ago, and as David Amess did yesterday.

Leading Labour figures ranging from Starmer and Rayner to Corbyn and McDonnell were quick to express condolences with Amess’s family and friends, and rightly so.

It is inconceivable that the by-election that will ensue in Southend West will be contested, at least by the major parties. As was the case in Batley & Spen in 2016, the only opposition will be from Britain’s all-too-many fringe far right freak show outfits.

It is otiose to over-speculate as to why the perpetrator – unnamed at the time of writing – acted as he did. The police have confirmed that he is of Somali heritage and that some form of Islamism is his likely motivation. It may be that his mental health was also a factor.

The killer has been caught and will be punished, presumably with the same severity as Cox’s killer Thomas Mair. But his very ethnicity guarantees a racist and Islamophobic response from the usual suspects.

Social media edgelords were already sounding off before the corpse was cold. In the days ahead they will be followed – at a suitably discreet, deniable distance, but of course – by their hateful dog-whistling heroes in the press, never ones to let a tragedy get in the way of building a reputation as a controversialist.

Amess was just the kind of Tory backbencher who was generally described in the Thatcher era, when he was MP for Basildon, as ‘sound’. The Mr Nice Guy reputation only came later.

His political career was initially built on an outlook conservative in both the small-c and large-C senses, symbolised in particular by his support for capital punishment.

This was one of his long-standing stances, predating even the death of his cousin in a multi-story car park in Worcester in 1986, reportedly after being stabbed 56 times.

The last hanging in Britain occurred within my lifetime, in 1964, and the death penalty technically remained on the statute books until just two years shy of the twenty-first century.

But a section of the Tory right, including the reactionary who heads the Home Office, has never entirely been reconciled to the idea that the state should not execute people.

‘Bring back the rope’ rhetoric is not the surefire Conservative conference applause winner it once was, but the idea has been back in circulation in recent months. What happened to Amess may be dragged into service to reinforce the case.

Finally, there is the question of how we got here.

The Daily Mail has reheated Angela Rayner’s ‘Tory scum’ comments in a bid to imply her moral complicity in Friday’s tragedy, somehow managing to overlook Tory MP James Gray’s WhatsApp joke about bombing the office of Anneliese Dodds.

It has also conveniently forgotten its own ‘Enemies of the People’ front page splash, directing vintage Stalinist invective at the judiciary, and its sister publication’s demand that ‘Labour MUST kill vampire Jezza.’

But tomorrow’s Mail on Sunday will no doubt carry page after page of hand-wringing comment and analysis, asking how Britain has become the kind of country where MPs are at risk of assassination.

The answer isn’t simple, and causal primacy can probably be attributed to the subjective ideas of the man who killed Amess.

But part of the answer will be the ugly drift towards callousness and derision seen in society at large over the last decade. And the tabloids, broadsheets and television stations of the right carry a large share of the responsibility for that.

David Osland is a long-time leftwing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland

Image: Sir David Amess MP. Source: Author: Richard Townshend, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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