Violent threats against MPs are becoming more common. Madeleine Ward reminds us that the safety of our political leaders is critical – a timely reminder as we approach Bonfire Night, a festival celebrating triumph over those who would use violence as a political tool. 01/11/2019
I am exhausted by the invasion into my privacy and the nastiness and intimidation that has become commonplace. Nobody in any job should have to put up with threats, aggressive emails, being shouted at in the street, sworn at on social media, nor have to install panic alarms at home.
Thus wrote Liberal Democrat MP, Heidi Allen, in her announcement this week that she will not run again in the forthcoming general election. She’s quite right too. Of course, no MP should have to face any of these things; none of them are necessary for the political scrutiny that we rightly expect of our elected representatives. It is well–known that Allen has faced heightened criticism on all sides of the political debate since quitting the Conservative whip to join Change UK in February of this year. However, the nature of this criticism has clearly passed beyond what is to be expected in a healthy, peaceful democracy. Heidi Allen is not the first to announce her retirement from Parliament in recent months – over 50 others had done the same as of October 30th – but it is shocking that concerns over safety should feature so prominently in her decision–making process.
Shocking, but not surprising. In September, Labour’s Paula Sherriff pleaded in the Commons for Johnson to refrain from using “dangerous” words like “surrender”, and the former Home Secretary Amber Rudd commented in response that Number 10’s “casual approach to safety of MPs and their staff [was] immoral”. Meanwhile, the daughter of Labour MP Yvette Cooper wrote a moving plea for change, reminding us that the risks faced by politicians in the current climate also place unthinkable burdens on their loved ones. In the week that followed Sherrif’s intervention, she received four more death threats. This is particularly chilling since she had specifically appealed to the memory of murdered MP Jo Cox when she raised the issue with the Prime Minister. The continued psychological impact of Cox’s murder is difficult to imagine for those of us who do not work in Parliament. So too, violent threats against MPs are becoming more common. According to the BBC, in the twelve months leading to August 2017, MPs reported 111 crimes targeting them to the police–run Parliamentary Liaison and Investigation Team (PLAIT); the following year saw 242 crimes reported; from September 2018 to July of this year there had already been 238.
Perhaps most shockingly of all, just over a week ago, it was widely reported that the majority of both Remain and Leave voters now believe violence is a “price worth paying” for their favoured Brexit outcome. The headline itself is, thankfully, somewhat misleading; various methodological criticisms have been levelled at the study, and the survey participants were, strictly speaking, asked about whether the “risk of violence” (rather than “violence” itself) was a price worth paying – in which case, their willingness to countenance such a risk seems a little less aggressive, if not altogether reassuring. However, pointing out the technical inaccuracy of one inconceivably awful headline feels almost beside the point. The figures are still sobering; in the same survey, 7% of respondents said they would like to see violence against MPs despite Brexit, and anyserious threat of violence against our elected representatives is too much. The fact that such threats have become so widespread (and so plausible) should be a source of shame for us all. This is, then, an extremely dangerous moment in our political history.
What a long and painful history that is – and it is perhaps more than a little ironic that Allen’s intervention should come so close in the year to Bonfire Night. Of course, 5 November 1605 was the infamous evening on which a plot to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament was prevented, thus saving the lives of King James VI/I, the Privy Council, members of the Lords and the Commons, and countless others in the vicinity. Needless to say, violence was employed more liberally on all sides back then; the brutality of the punishment meted out against the plotters would also not be deemed acceptable or proportionate by any country in the modern world. Given their Catholic faith, the discovery of the plot also led to the institution of a series of regressive anti–Catholic laws, and its celebration has sometimes been accompanied by uncomfortable anti–Catholic overtones even in the present day. Yet the fact remains that, at its heart, Bonfire Night is quite literally a festival celebrating triumph over those who would use violence as a political tool.
What could be more appropriate to the week – the three years, even – that we’ve just had?
The resonance of this peculiar celebration really does seem greater than ever. Remember, remember the fifth of November. It’s a cliché, but why should it ever be forgot? Not only is it far superior to the ghastly Halloween – a festival that is not nearly so fun or dangerous – but it also celebrates something that remains absolutely critical to the functioning of our democratic system: the safety of our political leaders. In an ideal world, this should be a given rather than a particular cause for celebration. Nonetheless, in a time when that safety does not seem guaranteed, perhaps it is time to ‘remember, remember’ a little more carefully.
Interested in this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e–newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Supporter Programme to find out how you can help our work.