• Tue. Nov 30th, 2021

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Left shaken by fatal stabbing, U.K. lawmakers renew push for greater protection

Britain was reeling Saturday from the killing of a veteran lawmaker in a public stabbing that sparked a terrorism investigation and renewed calls to address politicians’ safety.

The attack on David Amess while he met with the public in a small town just outside London left the country’s political establishment shaken once again, five years after the killing of another lawmaker.

Police declared Friday’s incident at a church in Leigh-on-Sea an act of terrorism and said that the early investigation had revealed a potential motive linked to Islamist extremism. But as the probe continued and tributes poured in for the longtime member of parliament, the spotlight was also shifting to politicians’ safety.

Though a social conservative on issues such as abortion, Amess had a reputation as a fixer in Parliament able to forge alliances across the political divide.Henry Nicholls / Reuters

Amess’ death carried painful echoes of the 2016 murder of Jo Cox, who was fatally shot and stabbed in broad daylight while meeting voters in a village in northern England. It has left lawmakers, their families and staff — already navigating an increasingly volatile political atmosphere — once again feeling vulnerable and at risk.

“It’s so hard because we’ve got a job to do,” said Kim Leadbetter, Cox’s sister and now an elected lawmaker herself.

“I find myself now, working as a politician and trying to help people and trying to do good things for people,” she told Sky News, which is owned by NBC News’ parent company Comcast. “But this is the risk that we’re all taking.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel said she was launching a review into security measures for all lawmakers. She was among those to lay flowers early Saturday outside Belfairs Methodist Church, where Amess was killed.

“We cannot be cowed by any individual or any motivation — people with motives who stop us from functioning to serve our elected democracy,” Patel told reporters.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose ruling Conservative Party the 69-year-old Amess represented, was also joined at the scene by Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party.

Johnson and Starmer stood side by side in a moment of silence before leaving. Other politicians and members of the public also flocked to pay their respects.TOLGA AKMEN / AFP – Getty Images

Under Britain’s parliamentary system, lawmakers have direct links with the public in their electoral districts, known as constituencies. They often host open meetings on Fridays, fielding everything from voters’ views on international affairs to local requests and personal concerns.

These meetings, known as “surgeries,” often take place in public spaces like churches and community halls, and are usually advertised. Amess himself posted online where he would be hosting his surgery on Friday.

Conservative lawmaker Tobias Ellwood, who gave first aid to a police officer stabbed at the gates of Parliament in 2017, said Friday that while engagement with the public was important, there was now increasing anxiety among some politicians.

He called for a “temporary pause in face to face meetings,” in the wake of Amess’ death.

The speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, said that he would also be launching a review into lawmakers’ safety and security.

Cox’s murder at the hands of a right-wing extremist came in the days leading up to the 2016 Brexit vote, an issue that has helped stoke divisions and a sometimes febrile mood.

In the years since, lawmakers have reported receiving a rising number of death threats, especially on social media.

The U.K. is far from the only country to see its politicians face threats and violence, of course, with the United States also forced to confront the issue following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. There have been other occasional attacks in the U.K. in past decades, too, including the stabbing of a lawmaker in 2010 by a student radicalized online.

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But after Amess’ death many urged a reckoning with the level of anger often directed at public servants, as well as a focus on the level of security they are afforded.

Some pressed on with their planned events Saturday, vowing not to let the attack harm their relationship with the public.

Alec Shelbrooke, a Conservative from West Yorkshire in northern England, said on Twitter the incident “has shocked us all.”

However, he added alongside photos of him greeting locals, while “we may have to add a few more precautions to how we do our job, we cannot let events like this diminish the deep relationship between an MP and their constituents.”

Brendan Cox, the husband of the Labour lawmaker murdered in 2016, wrote on Twitter that “Terrorists want us to respond by amplifying their hatred, dividing communities & giving them the notoriety the crave. We can’t change what happened yesterday, but each of us can be part of stopping the terrorist achieving those aims.”

His wife’s murder led to a review that toughened up security for lawmakers. But it also left scars on many, including Amess himself.

He described the aftermath of Cox’s killing in his book, “Ayes & Ears: A Survivor’s Guide to Westminster,” published last year.

Most lawmakers “have modified or changed the way they interact with the general public,” Amess wrote. But the biggest change, he said, was how politicians have approached their regular meetings with constituents — the type of meeting where he was killed Friday.

“The British tradition has always been that members of Parliament always make themselves available for constituents to meet them face-to-face at their surgeries,” he wrote.

“Now advice has been given to be more careful.”