When I served as MP for Wycombe, the Association’s office contained a bookcase (and for all I know still does). Among the volumes stacked in it were old copies of that familiar work, The Times Guide to the House of Commons. I would occasionally thumb through the immediate post-war editions, which detailed the military service of that generation of Parliamentarians. MPs have never been popular. But perhaps during that period they were felt to be part of the people they represented, having lived through the same experience as their constituents – that’s to say, the Second War World – in an age when Britain was more uniform than it is now.
There are many differences between that age and today’s, but today I will focus on only one. People with mental health problems were then more likely to be cared for by their families in the same homes, or to be locked away in the mental hospitals that were current at the time. This morning, the waves of revulsion and sorrow at the murder of Jo Cox are lapping at the edges of the current EU referendum campaign, and at the politics of immigration more widely, because it is reported that the man held in the wake of her murder, Thomas Mair, shouted “Britain First” during the course of it.
Perhaps he did. He appears to have had fascist political sympathies. More will doubtless become clear before very long. But for the moment one of the few facts that we can be sure of is that Mair had mental health problems. He worked as a groundsman in a local park in order to help ease them. He received “psychotherapy and medication”, had “a history of mental illness” and holds no full-time job. The testimony of neighbours has an eerily familiar ring. He was “a loner” and a “quiet bloke”; he “has never caused any trouble” and “seemed to like his own company”. He was living on his own and does not appear to have been in a relationship.
It is a statement of the obvious that not every quiet bloke who lives alone has mental health problems – let alone acts as Mair seems to have done. But the story of his illness and treatment and isolation is part of the tale of our times. In most ways, Mair is unlike Omar Mateen, the perpetrator of the Orlando massacre. But in one respect there seems to be a resemblance. Mateen, another loner, may not have been receiving treatment but evidently had mental health issues of his own. He murdered in the name of a political cause: Islamist extremism. It may turn out that Mair killed for another one. But the common thread of mental instability is there.
Most of those who abuse MPs on Twitter, or dash off aggressive e-mails to their parliamentary addresses, or shout at them in their surgeries are not mentally ill. Anger with Parliamentarians is sometimes justified, as during the expenses scandal. In very many respects, our political system itself is unwell. But there is something distorted about much of the rage expended on our MPs, just as there is something disproportionate about some of the problems now dumped on their doorsteps: planning disputes, rows with neighbours, family fallings-out – matters that lie either within the province of local councillors or not within that of politicians at all.
All this is part of another wider story – of a society in which families are more fractured, technology more pressing, media more frantic, neighbours less familiar, and values more diverse. Globalisation may make the world around us seem bigger, but our own private worlds are sometimes smaller. Senses of proportion shrink too. More people live in a bubble. The world of those old Times guides was left behind long ago. Wartime commonality, economic structures, class identity – all are either gone utterly or changed irrevocably. For MPs, constituency work fills the gap that the seepage of power from Westminster has left. They are morphing into social workers.
Here lies the paradox. No generation of Parliamentarians has ever worked harder in their seats than this one. But none has grappled with higher expectations. Amidst a culture with attention deficit disorder, life has become more dangerous for MPs and their staff. Andrew Pennington, an aide to a former Liberal Democrat MP, was killed in 2000. Fifty-two MPs have reportedly “had their property interfered with or damaged, including the slashing of car tyres, paint stripper poured over their vehicles and bricks thrown through their windows”. Some are stalked. Alarm systems are being installed; hotlines to the police put in.
This is the background noise of our politics, the ambient sound, which the Mairs’s of our age are tuned into. The terrible murder of Jo Cox may thus be shocking – and it is: deeply – but it is not at all surprising. The portents have long been there. This has been coming. The same report that contained those statistics of abuse was horribly prescient: “it is fixated loners rather than terrorists who pose the greatest risk to MPs”. Now one is dead – murdered outside her surgery, itself a symbol of her commitment to her constituents. This site honours the memory of an MP whose politics was different from ours, and who was clearly one of the very best of them.
I have been an MP myself. I am now a journalist. And I know which role is more difficult and dangerous. This may explain why ConservativeHome has a certain sympathy for MPs and tries to support them in their work – backing, for example, Adam Afriyie’s attempt to create an expenses system that would work for the benefit of the public rather than the entertainment of newspapers. Not, of course, that MPs get a bad deal now in terms of material reward. They are in the top three per cent of earners. They are well-pensioned. Most MPs are comfortably off. There is no shortage of people seeking to get into Parliament – at least yet.
Cox’s murder comes at a tense time. The EU referendum takes place in less than a week. Some Remainers are already seeking, in the wake of her death, to delegitimise objections to uncontrolled immigration. A few Leavers are taking refuge in that well-worn shelter in times of stress: conspiracy theory. Meanwhile, MPs will try to get the public to take a second look at what they do – have a second think. Cox’s husband, speaking in the wake of his loss, said that “we must unite against the hatred that killed her”. Yes, where hate is, murder may out. But mental illness seems in this case to have opened the door for it.
Today, we should ask some big questions about the way in which we treat MPs. Where does the balance lie between criticising and abusing them – thus deterring good people from politics? We have gated communties. Will we end up with gated politicians, insulated from constituents for their own protection? “The loveless men and homeless boys are out there and angry,” writes Carol Ann Duffy. “Nightly people end their lives in the shortcut./ Walk in the light, steadily hurry towards me./ Safely, safely, safe home. (Who loves you?)/ Safely, safely, safe home.” Jo Cox is not coming home. Her murder is a bleak moment for Britain. And there are many more loveless men out there.
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The Remain and Leave campaigns have suspended their campaigning. We are likewise suspending the campaign features and coverage that we had planned for today.