There’s a compelling argument for saying that accessibility and approachability are the two most important qualities in any elected representative at any level. They are not enough, of course, but without these particular attributes it’s hard to see how someone can hope to represent those they are elected to serve.
I didn’t know Sir David Amess, and confess to having little in common with his political outlook. However, it is obvious from the testimonies of those who knew him well, be they constituents, political allies or opponents, that Sir David possessed these two attributes in abundance. The fact that he was brutally murdered last Friday while making himself accessible to constituents who needed his help speaks volumes for the man and makes his death all the more tragic.
It also goes to the heart of why responding proportionately to last week’s events will not be easy. Local parliamentary offices across the country have already been adapted following the murder five years ago of Labour MP, Jo Cox. Booking and physical arrangements for advice surgeries may now alter, but care must be taken not to put up barriers for those who may already feel apprehensive about entering a constituency office or approaching their MP or MSP.
For elected representatives to do their job effectively; for constituents and the wider public to feel comfortable seeking help and advice when they need it; for democracy to function as it should, we have to accept that accessibility is non-negotiable.
There has also been much talk over recent days about improving the tone of political debate. Sir David’s family appealed for people to “set aside their differences and show kindness and be tolerant”. This was echoed by the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle who added, “the hate, which drives these attacks, has to end. The conversation has to be kinder and based on respect”.
This is certainly true and reminds me of the plea from the late Margo Macdonald that we should stop treating our political opponents as ‘enemies’. However, based on past experience from earlier attacks, I hold out little hope that much will change over time. It is all too easy, in the heat of political battle, to ‘play the man, not the ball’; to demonise or even dehumanise the individual rather than engage directly with the substance of the issue.
By way of illustration, I recall a meeting at Holyrood with Brendan Cox, in the aftermath of the murder of his wife, Jo. He had just launched More in Common, a campaign aimed at encouraging politicians to spend more time focusing on areas of agreement rather than hunting out differences and divisions. It was a fascinating and uplifting discussion, with unanimous agreement amongst the party leaders present. An hour later, two of those leaders were engaged in a brutally personalised exchange at First Minister’s Questions, cheered on by their backbenchers.
And tempting though it may be to point the finger at ‘identity politics’ and those engaged in so-called ‘culture wars’, the coarseness of political discourse plays all ways. References to Tories as ‘scum’ or those on the opposite side of the constitutional divide as ‘quislings’ or ‘traitors’ are no less corrosive.
Nor is this something from which we are immune here in Orkney, as was demonstrated by some of the deplorable behaviour meted out to my colleague, Alistair Carmichael in the months leading up to Jo Cox’s murder in 2016. Robust scrutiny and holding to account are essential in any democracy, but the dehumanising and ‘othering’ of those with whom we disagree has no upside and should have no place in our politics.
On a more positive note, like parliamentarians up and down the country, I have been contacted by many constituents over recent days, anxious to check that me and my staff are ok and expressing their thanks. It has been very touching, greatly appreciated and certainly helps stiffen the resolve.
Hopefully, the legacy of last week’s horrific events can involve an improvement in the way our politics is done. That must not, though, include a dilution of the accessibility of our politicians. Granting Sir David’s beloved Southend ‘city status’ wouldn’t be a bad call, either.