The announcement last week by the justice minister, Mike Freer, that he is stepping away from politics because of violent threats made against him, is further and deeply disturbing proof of the harm caused by such behaviour. Elected representatives should not face this treatment. The danger is not only that they and those close to them may suffer psychological harm or physical attack. It is also that they and others who could contribute greatly to public life are deterred from standing for parliament.
Mr Freer has represented Finchley and Golders Green for 14 years. His letter of explanation described multiple threats and cited his narrow escape from Ali Harbi Ali, the Islamist terrorist who murdered one of his Conservative colleagues, David Amess, in Southend. Ali visited Mr Freer’s constituency a month before the murder. More recently, two people have been charged with arson, following a fire in a shed behind Mr Freer’s office.
In recent years a number of MPs have spoken publicly of the toll taken by threats and intimidation, with female and minority-ethnic politicians suffering disproportionately. Mr Freer believes his strong support for Israel and opposition to antisemitism have made him a target. Many MPs have said that aggression is growing. Several wear stab vests to public events. The shocking murders of Jo Cox by a far-right terrorist in 2016, and of Mr Amess in 2021, mean that MPs have reason to be fearful. In 2000 a Liberal Democrat councillor in Cheltenham, Andy Pennington, was killed by an attacker armed with a sword as he protected Nigel Jones, the MP he worked for. In 2010 another MP, Stephen Timms, was stabbed and seriously injured by a female constituent who had been radicalised by al-Qaida videos. And in 2022 Labour’s Rosie Cooper stood down three years after a neo-Nazi was convicted of plotting to kill her.
Last month the Jo Cox Foundation published a report on civility in politics and a set of recommendations aimed at reducing abuse and intimidation. These include improved political literacy so that people better understand the role of their representatives, better enforcement of standards by social media companies, and strengthened policing and security. Greater clarity around what politicians can expect from their local forces would be beneficial.
Mr Amess was singled out by his killer because he held his surgery in an accessible place. Efforts to reinforce the distinction between robust disagreement and personal animosity, both online and in person, are also welcome. Liberal democracy cannot function properly if those elected to represent us are afraid to meet with constituents and say what they think. Their job by its nature requires engagement with the public. It is particularly concerning when people from underrepresented groups are afraid of being singled out.
Rising abuse and aggression aimed at public servants are not limited to politics. Attacks on NHS nurses have also recently increased, albeit for different reasons. The weakened state of the health service, and frustrated patients lashing out, are not part of the same phenomenon as extremists targeting politicians. But while these are distinct contemporary problems, they are also part of a pattern in which people are put off public service by the threat of physical violence. That should concern us all. An MP’s career should not end like this.