Since the killing of Jo Cox, MP, less than two years ago we have heard much in the media about the threats that our Member of Parliament are coming under.
As recently as January of this year a man was jailed for a string of threating abuses against Mark Prisk, the MP for Hertford and Stortford. Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the story around this attack is that Prisk was so fearful that he failed to attending a hustings. He is not the only MP who has had to change his course of action due to threats. In February last year Diane Abbott, who was suffering cyber-attacks claimed she was fearful of walking the streets of her own constituency.
Such tales have a far wider implication for all of us. Neither Prisk nor Abbott was physically assaulted, but the idea that Members of Parliament are so fearful for their safety that they fail in their duties as MPs in effect disenfranchises their constituents. Yet despite the public outcries from MPs themselves, there seems to be a lack of interest in the obvious course of action in hiring Close Protection Officers.
This may sound an extraordinary claim. Again you can refer to the media and read that MPs have had their personal allowances for security upped and of course the House of Commons must be one of the safest workplaces in the world. But closer inspection of the facts reveal that most of that is being spent on building security – MPs homes, it would appear, are very safe havens.
Nevertheless the threat to democracy remains high. Whilst MPs feel safe at home and at the House of Commons, Abbott and Prisk are not the only ones to feel vulnerable whilst representing their constituents. Sarah Champion, who was a close friend of Jo Cox’s is another who publicly stated her concern about being exposed to attack in her constituency.
To be brutally frank, the political climate suggests that such attacks will continue and increase. The squeeze on mental health spending and the radicalisation of young people of varying political and religious persuasions means that every Member of Parliament is in very real danger of being physically attacked.
The murder of Jo Cox was an indication of the depth of the divide that has plagued British politics in recent years. Her murderer was driven by a hate that had been fuelled by an essentially democratic debate regarding Britain’s future in terms of its relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. The debate itself need not have been quite so vitriolic and it can be argued that Thomas Mair, the MP’s killer, took his cue from the rabid form that the debate took in some quarters.
Mair’s political persuasions, however, were taken from a school of thought that lives way outside the parameters of modern democracy: his ideals, rather, echoed those of Hitler and Mussolini and as such allowed him the perspective that political assassination is a legitimate means of progressing his ideology.
Mair’s ideas and his means of communicating them, ie through violence, may be abhorrent to wider western society but Cox was not the first victim of political murder in the modern era, nor will she be the last. Even in calmer political waters, deranged individuals and groups with very sharp axes to grind have been and will continue to be a threat to those that are engaged in the political process. Members of Parliament, therefore need to consider their safety very seriously, not just as a knee jerk reaction but as a basic part of their work.
Spencer Percival is credited, if that is the correct term, as being the first UK Member of Parliament to be assassinated while in office. Percival, who was the Prime Minister, was shot in the lobby of the House of Commons in 1812, a tragic death which is unlikely to be replicated in modern times because of the levels of security now at The House. Another six MPs have been killed for political reasons before Cox met her untimely death, all of them dying at the hands of Irish republicans. Significantly they were all attacked away from the House, although Airy Neave was blown up as he exited the Palace of Westminster.
You may, of course, wish to tell yourself that eight MPs killed from 1812 to 2016 is a relatively small number and you can continue to whistle in the dark by telling yourself that Irish republicans are no longer in the business of killing British MPs. However, that bare figure and political fact tells nothing like the real and current story. According to a report published in the Guardian in June 2016 no fewer than 43 of 239 MPs surveyed had been the subject of attacks or attempted attacks. The two most notable were carried out in 2000 and 2010, both with bladed weapons. In 2000 then Cheltenham MP Nigel Jones was attacked at his surgery. In the attack, by a man who was later sectioned, Jones’ assistant, Andrew Pennington was killed. The assailant, Robert Ashman, had been a regular visitor to Jones’ surgery. Ten years later Stephen Timms was also attacked and stabbed in his surgery, this time by a radicalised student.
Such considerations should not and will not deter democracy. It is a basic of our political system that Members of Parliament are available to their constituents: part of their job is engaging in the community, not just via surgeries but also by attending functions and generally embedding themselves in their constituency.
It may be impossible to stop a deeply dedicated assassin from doing his job: a sniper rifle these days can typically kill from 800 metres and of course suicide bombers do not generally take ‘don’t’ for an answer. But there are steps that can be taken to decrease the likelihood of an attack and increase the likelihood of surviving one and one of the best ways to beef up your security is to hire a bodyguard.
It was the good work of bodyguards that saved the life of Ronald Reagan in 1981. When the first shot was fired at Reagan, his Personal Protection Officer launched the President into the back of the vehicle, whilst a second bodyguard shielded the movement. A successor of Reagan’s, Bill Clinton had his Close Protection Officers to thank for instinctively re-routing him away from a potential meeting with an assassination attempt and of course, there are countless times when the presence of bodyguards have deterred would-be assassins.
Good intelligence may or may not have deterred Mair from reaching Jo Cox, but a bodyguard on the scene would have increased her chances of surviving the attack, given that Mair was free to return to Cox after breaking off the initial assault.
In 2014 George Galloway was attacked in the street with a severity that certainly could have been contained had he been with a close protection officer.
Bodyguarding is not based on the brawn of a classic ‘bullet catcher,’ rather intelligent preparation and attention to detail. Pop stars may like the idea of having the biggest, brashest bodyguard they can get, but for a politician discretion is key. That means blending in, whilst remaining alert to evolving situations. Indeed many bodyguards to businessmen and women become confidantes or play a role that not only protects, but facilitates, with the boundary between a Personal Assistant and a Personal Bodyguard becoming blurred. Communication is vital. This aspect of being Individual Bodyguard was highlighted in Issue 38 of The Circuit, by Denida Zinxhiria.
If you think of a bodyguard as somebody who will get in the way of you doing your job, somebody whose presence is overbearing, you should re-evaluate – or shop around for the right bodyguard. As a Close Protection Officer I see my own role as that of an enabler. I am as professional as the person I protect and I want my principal to do the tasks that they know they need to do: no hiding behind the curtains, no refusing to greet and meet. In the case of MPs that means just plain-old representation in the knowledge that their back is covered.