The heroism of public service

Terrorism has failed to stop our MPs and our democracy – we must use this moment to help us value both again, writes Progress director Richard Angell

First published on ProgressOnline

‘Today was an effort to stop our democracy on its tracks’, was how Laura Kuenssberg ended her reporting of the Westminster terror attack last night. Today parliament meets as an act of defiance to those who wish to use violence to target our public officials. 

All will return with the exception of one brave police officer – PC Keith Palmer – who gave his life in the line of duty to keep others safe. Our thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues – who know it could so easily be them. 

The prime minister spoke for everyone when she paid tribute to the emergency services who ‘ran towards the danger even as they encouraged others to move the other way’. This bravery is worth reflecting on. Jess Philips gave voice to their remarkable service: ‘To lose a colleague & friend in line of duty is so painful, to get straight back up and keep serving under fire and pressure makes you a hero.’

This attack may not be on the scale of 9/11 or 7/7 but the intimate nature of it makes it every bit as harrowing. Mounting a curb to watch as pedestrians become victims is sick. The ‘low tech’, as Iain Duncan Smith described it, nature of what followed – as the terrorist made their way into the parliamentary estate with a knife and the determination to take a life – is harrowing.

The location, not just recognisable to the world as a landmark but as the mother of all parliaments, means the attack strikes at the very heart of our democracy. Twice in one year those singled out as targets for hate have been those that represent the public-at-large – Jo Cox was taken in her constituency, yesterday took place at Palace of Westminster itself. 

Yet in both tragic examples, the men and women of principle in British public life provide a glimpse of public service at its very best. Cox had many works that continue to inspire us, yesterday Tory MP Tobias Ellwood had actions to match. 

I remember after the loss of the MP for Batley and Spen last June how quickly things seemed to go back, not just to business as usual – but the same language as usual. MPs as selfish, expenses-cheaping creeps only ‘in it for themselves’. If the bile directed at public officials was at against a ‘protected characteristic’ like race or sexuality, experts would study the link between our discourse and acts of violence, how hate speech so often manifests itself as acts of hate soon thereafter. It is right that those in positions of power are viewed with a healthy scepticism, even met with ridicule from time-to-time and that – occasionally – the truth of what they say is brought into question. A return to deference is neither desirable, nor helpful. However, some of the language and disrespect demeans the hard-work, dedication and service that almost all of our MPs, peers, councillors, mayors, judges – let along civil servants and emergency service personnel – put into their everyday lives. For so many politics is a calling – so call out the hypocrisy when you see it and the abuses where they take place but stop the name-calling as a matter of course. 

This failed attack has not stopped our MPs and our democracy – we must use this moment to help us value both again. 

Our thoughts also go out to the family and friends of PC Keith Palmer and the three civilians who were taken by this senseless act. Join the mayor of London Sadiq Khan in Trafalgar Square at 6pm to remember the victims of yesterday’s attack and stand against terrorism. 

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Richard Angell is director of Progress

You can donate to PC Keith Palmer‘s memorial fund here

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