Can changing rhetoric save our representatives?


On 15th October 2021, Sir David Amess, the Conservative MP for Southend West, was murdered while holding a surgery for his constituents. In what has now been deemed a terrorist incident, Amess was attacked while listening to the needs of those he represents — a fundamental part of the UK’s democratic process, which is now under threat. 

However, what makes this tragedy more saddening is that this threat is not an isolated occurrence and has been present over recent years. Indeed, only five years ago, Jo Cox was brutally murdered while on her way to meet constituents. These two recent murders indicate the presence of a violent political and social undercurrent that has been brewing for many years. 

What makes both Cox’s and Amess’ cases especially difficult to interpret is that both victims were reliable and relatively unknown backbench MPs. 

The ease and frequency at which people can become radicalised online seems to undermine these key values

Cox was an avid humanitarian, setting up the ‘Friends for Syria’ All Party Parliamentary Group to help educate those in Parliament about the struggles which everyday Syrians face, in order to produce effective policies for the region. Amess’ recent project saw him promoting a Children’s Parliament, designed to provide the youth with a platform to champion issues that were pertinent to them, like climate change. It is a testament to the toxicity running within our politics that two hardworking and committed public servants were the targets of two brutal murders. 

Despite both the suspects in Amess’ and Cox’s cases coming from very opposite political and religious backgrounds, they seem to have both gone through similar stages of radicalisation. Thomas Mair, Cox’s murderer, found inspiration online through various white supremacist movements. This radical white supremacy led him to believe that killing Cox, a pro-Remain MP, would put “Britain first” and “keep Britain independent”; both claims that he made while attacking her. 

Moreover, the suspect in the killing of Amess, Ali Harbi Ali, is also claimed to have been radicalised online. Ali had been referred to Prevent, the Government’s extremism programme. Both Mair and Ali found their inspiration through divisive religious and political movements, and both carried out attacks in the belief that they were acting accordingly. 

Free speech is integral to our democratic processes

Nevertheless, it seems as though an answer as to how to prevent this radicalisation is still unclear. Free speech is integral to our democratic processes. It facilitates discourse and creates a society and a political system which focuses on cooperation and cohabitation. 

However, the ease and frequency at which people can become radicalised online seems to undermine these key values. Free speech seems to have been seized by those wishing to destroy its core and is now being utilised to attack the foundations of democracies around the world. 

However, placing restrictions on freedom of speech may not have the desired affects to prevent future attacks on our politicians and our democracy. Indeed, it may have the opposite effect of alienating more and more people, which only hastens radicalisation. Stating that some views are illegal to hold and espouse may encourage dangerous narratives. It may reinforce the notion, held by these radical groups, that those in power are attempting to silence and oppress. This provides more reason to carry out reactionary violence to place radical ideals back into the spotlight. 

What seems to be more essential to preventing future attacks on our politicians is the de-escalation of our rhetoric within politics and society. Over the past decade, discourse surrounding political issues has moved from a position of relative mutual understanding to an environment of combat defined by the hatred that all sides have towards one another. 

Our politicians need to be protected not only as people in positions of power, but also as citizens of a democracy

The motivation behind Amess’ murder is not yet clear, but Cox was certainly a victim of this dangerous rhetoric. Her killer latched onto the combative nature of the discourse surrounding Brexit and used it as justification to commit a horrendous crime. This is the true effect that our political rhetoric can have, not only on the safety of politicians but also, in Cox’s and Amess’ cases, the lives of parents to children and family to loved ones. 

Ultimately, our politicians need to be protected not only as people in positions of power, but also as citizens of a democracy. Shutting down certain avenues of disagreement and discourse, however, is not reliable enough to provide this protection. Instead, a more compassionate and less adversarial political environment is key in preventing attacks on our representatives as well as our democratic values. 

Image: Number 10 via Flickr

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