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Disagreeing disagreeably: British Democracy and Assassination

The murder of Conservative MP Sir David Amess on Friday 15th October has refocused attention both on the general health of British democracy and, more specifically, upon assassination threats to its elected representatives. Such attacks remain thankfully rare: the last killing was that of Labour MP Jo Cox (16 June 2016). Before that, the Labour MP Stephen Timms had survived being stabbed (on 14th May 2010).

Still, as the great theorists of terrorism remind us, the point about effective terror is that a little can go a long way. Context is all. Here it bears emphasis that the tragic killing of Sir David Amess occurs against a relentlessly rising tide of bile and hatred against elected representatives in Western democracies. The sheer volume of online and personal abuse that MPs (and their staffs) receive are hard to imagine: a 2019 survey of MPs by the BBC found that over 60% of those who responded had contacted the police about threats they had received. It is a far cry from the 1930s where shaking your fist at an MP could be counted as an exceptional act of public defiance.

Is such a relentlessly bubbling culture of abuse ‘a British disease’? That was the assertion of a ‘senior Westminster source’ in the wake of the news of Sir David Amess’s murder (in The Observer, 17th October 2021). But it is not clear how far the claim holds up. To be sure, the bitter divisions of recent years across the UK have hardly helped. A notable feature of British public debate is the deep-seated reluctance to acknowledge some self-evident trends – that British foreign policy (in both the Global War on Terror and over Brexit) has fuelled divisions within UK society: and that lethal violence can be an occasional symptom of those wider tensions. Political violence always remains highly political: even if it is necessary for both moral and practical reasons to stigmatise it.

Yet, a mere glance at the USA reveals similarly acute – if not worse – political tensions. The sight of US Congressmen and women fleeing the Capitol on 6th January 2021 will linger long in the memory. Donald Trump here had much to answer for. But the trend is a wider one as well in American politics. On 14th June 2017, the left-wing militant James Hodginkinson shot up a Congressional baseball practice. A few years earlier the Democratic representative for Arizona’s 8th congressional district, Gabby Giffords, had survived being shot in the head (8th January 2011). Such incidents are also not confined to the Anglosphere of politics. In Europe, the assassinations of Pawel Adamovicz, the liberal Mayor of Gdansk (14th January 2019) and the German Christian Democrat Walther Lübcke politician (2 June 2019) pointed to the emergence of new dangers from the extreme right: even before the Covid pandemic hit and turbo-charged its self-appointed cultural warriors yet further.

Over a decade ago the trend towards a greater and more openly expressed contempt of politicians was diagnosed by the great sociologist of the internet age, Manuel Castells: ‘the general trend is the erosion of the capacity of the democratic political system to process social demands and value changes’. The overall relationship between highly exceptional killings and wider background cultures of institutionalised online abuse is complex and debated. But it seems safe to assume some degree of crossover, however minimal. Very few will ever make the transition from character to actual assassination: but even a small increase in absolute numbers can have devastating and destabilising effects.

Seen against longer-term trends it is not entirely surprising that mid-ranking political representatives should now be targeted more frequently: in their constituency roles, they occupy the all-too obvious weak flank of any democratic system. Governments and top ministers are now simply too well protected to be easily reached. Back in 1970, one study found that one in four US presidents had been targeted by assassins, but only one in 1,000 congressmen and women. 50 years later, the picture is beginning to look more ominously diffuse. We should not underestimate the pragmatism of ideological assassins.

What is to be done? In the immediate future, an even greater fortification of our elected representatives seems inevitable. Indeed, it is already underway according to The Observer: ‘in 2015-16, the amount spent on MPs’ security was just £171,000. By 2017-18 that had increased to £4.2 m. Panic buttons were installed, constituency doors were strengthened, and alarm systems improved’. Expect much more of the same.

Looking further ahead, much surely depends upon the future temper of British politics: and the degree to which the tensions unleashed by Brexit (and, before that, by the War on Terror) are successfully contained (or not). Globally, the omens are anything but certain. Recent pressure on social media giants to live up to their social responsibilities in reigning in hate speech and misinformation are surely welcome.

Other signs, though, seem distinctly more ominous. We certainly should not overlook the example set by the great powers in legitimising and advertising the practice of assassination more widely. Even though strikingly inept, Russia’s attempt on the life of opposition leader Alexei Navalny was blatant enough (20 August 2020). But the USA has been no more discreet: indeed, the killing of Qasem Soleimani by drone strike at Baghdad International Airport was clearly intended to be spectacular (3 January 2020). We should not assume that such state behaviour goes unnoticed – or, sometimes indeed, uncelebrated – by either their own populations or the wider masses out there on social media. Last time I looked Robert J. O’Neill, the assassin of Osama Bin Laden, had 432,000 twitter followers.

Dr Tim Wilson, CSTPV Director, 19 October 2021