By Mark Connolly
A member of the public casts their vote in a General Election. A Member of Parliament walks into a voting lobby. A member of the online community composes a post for their Twitter page and presses “Share.” These actions are all seemingly mundane, and utterly commonplace. Citizens participate every election cycle; MPs vote on all the major issues brought before the House; and an average of 500 million Tweets are shared on the platform per day. None of these would strike us as violent acts.
Now try this: a 25-year-old man walks into a church and stabs a sitting MP multiple times; the victim is taken to hospital via air ambulance and pronounced dead within an hour. This one is less mundane, far from commonplace – and we instantly recognise it as an act of violence.
The brutal murder of Sir David Amess, whilst he held a constituency surgery in Leigh-on-Sea just two weeks ago, rocked the nation’s political establishment to its core. This was the second time in five years that an elected representative was killed simply doing their job, which made many revisit questions regarding the safety of public servants, radicalisation, and hate speech.
Such discourse is understandable: we do not know the precise motives of Ali Harib Ali, the young Londoner who carried out the attack, beyond “potential links to Islamist extremism.” Furthermore, it is far from clear why David Amess specifically was chosen as the target. Was it his party affiliation, his personal religious faith, or was it simply the fact he was an MP? Until these questions can be definitively answered, all discussion about a future course of action is merely speculative.
In the absence of any certainty, the public conversation has been guided – or dragged – by the Westminster politicians and talking heads towards the issue of online safety, with the recent Online Safety Bill aiming to end anonymity on social media platforms. Though undoubtedly well-intentioned, the Bill misses the bigger picture, instead finding a simple solution to a complex web of problems, the real answers to which must start with how we conceive political violence.
Let us then return to our examples from earlier. What if we were to rephrase them? A member of the public gives consent to state-sanctioned child starvation with their vote. A Member of Parliament agrees that bombing innocent civilians in Yemen is a good idea. A member of the online community encourages violent acts of terrorism against public servants. Suddenly, the everyday doesn’t seem quite so mundane.
Admittedly, these examples are extreme – the reasons for any actions carried out in the political sphere are varied and multifarious, and any action can be dismissed as reprehensible if we consider only the very worst consequences. Nonetheless, such reframing is vital in order to reinforce just how far-ranging the consequences of our actions are. When played out in the public sphere, decisions made – particularly by those with institutional power – will unavoidably affect entire communities and populations.
Following the tragedy in Essex, there appeared to be some recognition of this. Conservative commentator Douglas Murray was quick to make the link between hate speech and violence, writing “If a leading Conservative has recently described all Labour MPs as ‘scum’ and a Labour MP had subsequently been murdered, all hell would be raining down on that person.” This was in reference to controversial comments made by Angela Rayner at Labour Party Conference where she labelled Tory ministers as “scum.” The sentiment was echoed by many other journalists, from GB News presenter Dan Wooton to former Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie.
In the interest of fairness, it is worth pointing out that there is no known connection between Angela Rayner’s comments and the murder of David Amess; any assertion of such a connection must be challenged and dismissed as the nonsense that it is. That said, the link between insidious rhetoric and violent terrorism is undeniable, and it is not only right but absolutely essential that we hold public figures with large platforms to account for their words, which can have tangibly destructive consequences.
However, it seems short-sighted at best and at worst deeply irresponsible not to apply the same thinking to political processes like voting, campaigning, and activism. If Angela Rayner is to come under fire for her inflammatory words, then so too should all of the 320 MPs who voted against the provision of free school meals during school holidays – the existence of starvation in a country of plentiful resources is, after all, a type of violence.
This perhaps highlights another dimension to political violence that we need to be better at recognising: systemic violence. The fact that no one individual is responsible for a child going to bed hungry does not mean we can’t acknowledge it as violent; the absence of a perpetrator shouldn’t diminish the obscenity of the situation. Johan Galtung, a pioneer in the study of systemic violence, found that the injustice built into systems of economic organisation and government are often overlooked precisely for this reason. It has meant that structural problems with deeply harmful outcomes (like poverty, ethnocentrism or alienation) have been accepted as given, where individual acts of violence such as assault and murder demand punishment.
Despite their initial publication in 1969 transforming academic approaches of violence in the political sphere, Galtung’s insights have failed to gain traction in mainstream discourse on the subject. And it shows. In news cycles and political speeches we so often hear of the individual moral failings of those who carry out terrorist attacks, but almost never of the structural political instability which breeds terrorism, and the very clear links to Western interventionist foreign policy, which has undoubtedly led to more terrorism, not less. It is dangerously naïve to think that the entire solution lies in locking up perpetrators of political violence. That is only one half of the solution; the other half lies with us.
What, then, are we to do? Once the tributes to Sir David Amess are said and done, how do we go forward with the shared intent of making us all safer? For a start, those with a platform in the national conversation need to think carefully about their words – not just their potential to incite potentially hateful acts, but also their capacity to frame political debate.
The real-world consequences of government policy should be spelled out clearly in our print and broadcast media. That means putting politicians on the spot and making them face up to the violence built into the system of which they are in charge. That this would be an effective strategy was made all too clear when our own Prime Minister was forced to acknowledge the plight of children sleeping on the floors of under-funded hospitals during an election campaign interview, making him squeamish at with the impact of his own party’s policies. Imagine if we did the same with every issue for which politicians deem violent outcomes permissible. It is doubtful any MP would argue in favour of arms sales to Saudi Arabia quite so vociferously if they had to do it while watching those very bombs dropping on civilians in Yemen.
But what is not needed at this time is stricter limits to online anonymity. The fact that right-wing journalist Julie Burchill kept her job at the Spectator despite vile and slanderous claims that commentator Ash Sarkar was a terrorist-sympathiser and “paedophile worshipper” should suggest to us that anonymity is not necessarily the problem: even those with large public profiles perpetrate abuse, and face few consequences for doing so. To suggest that this sticking-plaster solution would mend the deep-rooted societal problem is perhaps indicative of our lack of political imagination, which blinds us to systemic challenges in favour of surface-level explanations that don’t quite add up.
Let us not then pounce on an easy target in the wake of a disorienting and deeply disturbing tragedy. Politically-motivated violence does not simply start and end with anonymous online trolls, reprehensible though many of them may be. The problem is in fact far more complex, and implicates all of us, requiring we all do a better job of understanding violence – both its causes and its manifestations. It would perhaps be the greatest tribute to Sir David Amess for us all to recognise that.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.