I’ve only ever encountered my local MP in his surgery the once; it was around six or seven years ago and I made the appointment whilst working on my book, ‘Looking for Alison’. I needed help accessing London crown court records from the early 1990s and I’d hit so many brick walls with the courts themselves that I turned to my elected representative as a last resort. I should’ve approached him earlier, for his Parliamentary clout opened doors I hadn’t been able to and enabled me to bring the curtain down on an especially difficult chapter in the research. The location of his surgery was a community centre I’d visited several years before due to it hosting a pre-school playgroup that came in handy when I was babysitting my then-girlfriend’s infant daughter. Never having had cause to meet my elected representative before, I’d imagined MPs had special, purpose-built surgeries like GPs up until that point; but temporarily renting somewhere for a fortnightly or monthly meeting with constituents made sense. The fact that the chosen venues tend to be places where members of the public congregate – rather than, say, official constituency party premises – also helps cement a connection between elected and electorate that Honourable Member status often negates.
The estrangement of MPs from the people can give the appearance of being an unbridgeable chasm. If, say, the MP has a pro-Remain stance and the majority of his or her constituents are Brexiteers, there is an instant schism; moreover, too much time spent in the Westminster bubble and mistaking Twitter for a barometer of public opinion can falsely inflate issues that are minority concerns into major causes – something the Labour Party’s suicidal pandering to Trans activists who only represent a tiny section of the ‘Trans community’ has shown in recent years. I’ve never had a local MP who happens to be a Cabinet Minister, but such figures must seem even more remote should that be the case; yet the tradition of every MP – even those whose most publicised encounters are with VIPs – submitting to less newsworthy encounters with their humble constituents probably serves as the sole means of keeping the more high-flying Parliamentarians a little grounded. This was brilliantly portrayed in ‘In The Loop’, the movie version of ‘The Thick of It’, when Tom Hollander’s Minister for International Development is preoccupied by transatlantic affairs yet has to endure a Northampton constituent (played by Steve Coogan) moaning on and on about a ‘bloody wall’.
Perhaps the unique tradition of the MP’s constituency surgery is maybe the only opportunity we the voters have to approach our representatives and see the men or women behind the hype; it certainly offers us a more human vision than the less genuine performance that comes when they’re electioneering or avoiding answering questions on ‘Newsnight’ or the ‘Today’ programme. I can only speak of my own personal experience in that the solitary surgery meeting I had paid off and the MP in question earned my vote at the following General Election; the fact he ended up losing his seat is beside the point, for I appreciated the chance to communicate my particular problem to him – something it’s surprising how many people out there are unaware they have the right to.
From all accounts, it would seem a backbencher of almost 40 years’ vintage like Sir David Amess was the kind of MP his constituents felt they could approach in such a manner and he would make the effort to help them if they needed it. The essential importance of such a role for an MP cannot be underestimated, especially in times like these, when politicians can so often give the impression of being utterly detached from the everyday concerns of their constituents. MPs shouldn’t be bracketed alongside movie stars or pop stars, surrounded by minders and only glimpsed by the public for a few seconds as they disembark from chauffeur-driven cars and evade the crowds to dash indoors; all that does is reinforce the opinion of them as a cosseted elite a breed apart from the man and woman in the street. Following yesterday’s events, some of David Amess’s fellow MPs have called for an end to the face-to-face surgery; another veteran MP, Sir Bernard Jenkin, has claimed the tradition is increasingly irrelevant now that Zoom conferences have become the norm in so many businesses and the in-person constituency is something he regards as ‘frankly not really necessary’. The reaction of Jenkin could be seen as an understandable knee-jerk response in the wake of a shocking incident, but I think to abandon such a vital form of communication between elected and electorate would be a mistake.
When I attended my one and only surgery, it was before the murder of Jo Cox by a constituent – which, of course, took place in the street and not at her actual surgery; I recall there was just the MP and his PA present, no minder or armed police officer, and I wasn’t searched before entering the room just in case I happened to be carrying a concealed weapon. I was surprised, in a way; I thought I might at least have to pass through the kind of security check one gets when entering a magistrates’ court, i.e. having to empty one’s pockets and so on. There had been serious physical attacks on MPs prior to Jo Cox, most notably Labour MP Stephen Timms, who survived an attempted murder by an Islamic extremist stabbing him with a kitchen knife at his surgery in 2010. A decade before, Lib Dem MP Nigel Jones had been attacked at his surgery by a constituent wielding a Samurai sword; Jones survived the attack, but his assistant was killed. Post-Jo Cox, I suspect security was probably tightened-up at surgeries, but balancing the need for personal safety and the rare opportunity to confront constituents remains a tricky one for MPs.
Sir David Amess held a fortnightly surgery in his Southend constituency and on the fatal day the surgery was taking place in a Methodist church; his assailant was apparently stood in a queue to see the MP inside the church and emerged from the line when his name was called armed with a knife. The unnamed 25-year-old man stabbed Amess several times, and though the MP was rushed to hospital it would appear he died at the scene. The killer is believed to be a British national of Somali heritage and after several hours of speculation, the murder of David Amess has been labelled a ‘terror incident’, suggesting there was some political or ideological motivation on the part of the murderer. This in itself is nothing new; the 2010 attack on Stephen Timms was carried out by a Muslim woman incensed by the fact Timms had voted for the invasion of Iraq, whilst we all recall the far-right/white supremacist leanings of the man who murdered Jo Cox.
Unless we’re simply talking about a mentally disturbed individual whose internal demons will be manifested as a violent act without the need for a ‘cause’, it was perhaps inevitable such an association would rear its ugly head. Naturally, there have been some on social media who have blamed the increasingly incendiary atmosphere in British politics ever since Brexit; and while I personally don’t think some politicians help by disengaging their mouths from their brains when opportunistically scoring points, I don’t really believe one can hold, say, the gormless ‘Tory Scum’ rant of Angela Rayner any more responsible for the death of David Amess than some of Nigel Farage’s more inflammatory comments on the eve of the 2016 Referendum somehow provoked the murder of Jo Cox. Yes, the atmosphere in and around Westminster – and the way in which the public receives edited highlights deliberately edited to feature the most ‘dramatic’ moments – can generate disgust and apathy, but for most that would simply be translated at the ballot box via a protest vote or an abstention; the less balanced mind can take a different route, though the chances of MPs encountering a mind travelling that route at their surgeries is mercifully rare, and this horrific incident shouldn’t curtail what remains one of our democracy’s more levelling traditions.
© The Editor