8 February 2022

Extra security might hold back the mob – but a ring of steel comes with costs for our democracy


The ugly sight of Sir Keir Starmer being hounded by a mob outside Parliament, before being bundled into a police vehicle for his own safety, raises yet again the question of whether we do enough to ensure the physical security of our politicians.

Not that we need more opportunities to do so. After all, two MPs have been assassinated in the past six years, an awful tempo only matched by the IRA’s murder campaign against the Conservatives between 1979 and 1990.

Given that some of the thugs were shouting about Jimmy Savile, the Prime Minister’s spurious allegation that Starmer failed to prosecute him has been pushed even further into the spotlight. But even Boris Johnson’s staunchest critics must concede the even bleaker truth that most of the mob would have been there anyway, shouting something about vaccines or, in one case, the Freemasons.

We’re certainly a long way from the days when Ed Miliband said being egged by a protester was a ‘new way to connect with voters’.

The obvious response, and indeed the general post-9/11 reflex, is more security. And it is probably not for those of us who risk no greater danger than having the piss taken out of us on Twitter to begrudge politicians the expense if they do decide to go down that route.

Yet the ring of steel has its own costs. The ubiquity of what we (increasingly redundantly) term ‘airport-style security’ at major venues is one of the more soul-grinding features of modern life. Of course, we get used to it; human beings seem able to get used to almost any ‘new normal’ you throw at them, given time.

But I can’t be the only one who feels a real, perhaps unexpected sense of loss when reading about such baffling artefacts of the pre-9/11 world as the Edinburgh to London flight where you simply strolled on and bought your ticket on the plane.

Pure nostalgia? I don’t think so. Perhaps the balance of harms is worth it, but it is a balance. And there could be a similar trade-off to giving much greater physical security to MPs, who remain on the whole extremely accessible to ordinary people.

This contrast between MPs and the imperial splendour of Congressmen was played for laughs in In the Loop, where the protagonist had to balance matters of war and peace with trying to get a subsiding wall fixed in his constituency. But the kernel of the joke is a feature of British politics cherished by many.

But accessibility and vulnerability go hand in hand. Jo Cox was murdered outside a library, David Amess in a church, both whilst on constituency business. 

A greater focus on security will make this sort of work more difficult. If it happens, perhaps this will be what pushes MPs away from their current ‘super-councillor’ role and back towards the older focus on being a national legislator. In itself, that might be no bad thing, provided actual councillors step in to pick up the democratic slack.

Ultimately, an open and accessible politics is only sustainable in a civilised, high-trust society. And whilst it is easy to focus on the assassins and terrorists who exploit the weaknesses in such a system to the most terrible effect, responsibility for maintaining such a political culture actually falls on everyone involved.

That means politicians and activists alike. Yes, politicians should avoid using their privileged pulpit to whip up the mob or otherwise coarsen public life. But campaigners also need to resist the temptation to go on the attack whenever politicians create an opening.

Just the other week, I saw one activist boasting on Twitter about joining a successful effort to disrupt an online consultation Priti Patel was hosting on some Home Office business or other. It must have been very gratifying for him.

But it seems very unlikely to have prompted the Home Secretary to change her mind; a much more likely consequence is that she will be understandably less willing to engage in such events in future. Everyone who might have taken an opportunity to question her in good faith – and by extension, all who want a more open politics – is the loser then.

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Henry Hill is News Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.