“There is more that unites us than divides us”Chipping Barnet MP Theresa Villiers speaks to Barnet Post in the wake of the killing of Sir David Amess
Chipping Barnet MP Theresa Villiers has opened up about her own personal safety after giving a statement in response to the killing of Conservative MP Sir David Amess.
Sir David, 69, the MP for Southend West, was stabbed to death during his constituency surgery in Leigh- on-Sea, Essex, on 15th October. Ali Harbi Ali, a 25-year-old British man, has been charged with murder and the preparation of terrorist acts in connection with the incident.
Theresa is “horrified by what has happened”. She says, “I would like to pay tribute to Sir David Amess MP. He was a loyal friend, a kind and good man, and an energetic, enthusiastic and assiduous constituency MP.”
Having “worked together for many years on animal welfare and other matters” including “human rights and democratic reform in Iran” as well as “freedom for Cyprus”, she will now “redouble [her] efforts to campaign on these issues”.
Theresa continued: “David will be greatly missed. He was always very kind and supportive to me. It is appalling that his life has been cut short in this brutal and vicious attack. To [kill] an MP at their constituency advice surgery is truly an attack on democracy.
“He was a real gentleman and a fine Parliamentarian. My thoughts and condolences go to all of his friends and family.”
Theresa revealed to the Post that a sombre mood has descended on Parliament saying “it’s one of those things that didn’t really sink in on the day it happened. I can’t quite believe that David won’t bounce into the chamber. It’s a difficult time, certainly.”
The safety of MPs has been a particular priority since 2015 when Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen, was murdered. “All MPs, I think, have taken great care in relation to their security. So there are quite a few things that I now do that I didn’t in the past.”
Whether those measures are enough is unclear, “things move on and it is obviously an important time to look at everything afresh. But I am determined that I will maintain face to face contact with my constituents, I do feel that’s an important part of our democracy and our way of life. The challenge istomakesurethatIdothatina way that is as safe as possible.”
Theresa says her greatest concern is the safety of her staff who would be on the front line should “someone, somewhere, want to attack me.”
She believes that “hostility” aimed at MPs has been on the rise since she began her political career in 1999. One explanation might be that “there’s just vastly more contact from constituents than there used to be” allowing for more ways to send threatening messages.
Despite receiving “aggressive” messages in her inbox and on social media she is quick to emphasise that she has “not been subjected to the same levels of hostility that many of my colleagues are.”
Theresa also wants to draw a distinction between online aggression, in particular trolling on social media, and the tragic killing of Sir David, saying that she “cannot speculate” as to the motivations for the crime. Still, she agrees that the cracks that have splintered society into opposing camps are often revealed on social platforms where heated debates happen in the public eye.
Brexit split her constituency nearly down the centre but Theresa says she was keen to “find compromises” and “bring people together”. Now, the task at a local level might be to find a way to have “civil debates”.
In divisive times online aggression can breed violence and Theresa can “understand” colleagues concerns “about the sort of climate which is created on some social media platforms”. It is often “the cloak of anonymity” that emboldens those who utilise the platforms to preach a gospel of hate, which then might have real-life consequences.
Solutions do not come easy but “one of the best responses is Joe Cox’s maiden speech [which] emphasised that there is more that unites us than divides us. We all need to try and make the best efforts we can to bring people together rather than divide them.”
Young people are, perhaps, the most susceptible to these divisive ideologies and can be drawn into committing horrific acts of violence. The Guardian reports that Ali Harbi Ali was still a teenager when he was referred to Prevent – a counterterrorism strategy for those in danger of radicalisation – in 2014. Subsequently, he spent several months at the more intensive Channel counter-terrorism programme.
One of “the most important challenges we face as a society is to support young people” when they are at such a “vulnerable age”. That means supporting all youth “whether they might be tempted by gangs or by [ideological] radicalisation” of any kind.
Critics question the effectiveness of Prevent but Theresa says there are “a lot of success stories” and it is “primarily a safeguarding programme. It’s not designed to identify people as potential terrorists” and criminalise them.
She advocates for programmes where those with “lived experience communicate and connect with vulnerable young people”. She gives examples from her time as Northern Ireland Secretary where she witnessed successes when ex-offenders “discouraged people from getting involved in para-militarism”.
If verbal abuse has the potential to breed violence then Theresa says, “a lasting memorial to Sir David and Joe Cox is for all of us to try to find ways to genuinely bring people together across divides.”