A 'surgery' - the bedrock of British politics

LONDON (Reuters) - “It’s what we do. May it never change,” Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon said on Friday, describing how lawmakers across Britain will go ahead and hold local “surgeries” the day after a member of parliament was killed just before hers.

Cox's killing - in daylight on a street just as she arrived at a local library where she was due to hold a surgery - has sent shockwaves through Britain. REUTERS/Phil Noble

Holding a surgery, a one-to-one meeting much like when a patient consults a doctor, is the bedrock of British politics - a chance for lawmakers to meet, listen to and advise the people who elected them, in an informal atmosphere.

While commemorating the life of Jo Cox in her northern English hometown, Prime Minister David Cameron paid tribute to Britain’s centuries-old democracy as one “where members of parliament are out in the public, accountable to the public, available to the public”.

But with informality and accountability comes vulnerability.

In Westminster, where lawmakers do much of their work in parliament, armed police patrol the entrances, corridors and halls. In their home electoral districts, or constituencies, more often than not, there is no security.

Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland’s devolved government, said on Twitter that she, like dozens of others, would hold a surgery on Friday, “with heavy hearts”, after Cox, a lawmaker from Britain’s main opposition Labour Party, was shot and stabbed in her northern English electoral district.

But several lawmakers canceled their meetings, giving only telephone numbers for people to call.

Cox’s killing - in daylight on a street just as she arrived at a local library where she was due to hold a surgery - has sent shockwaves through Britain which has seen a sometimes acrimonious campaign ahead of a vote on whether to stay in the European Union next week.

The last British lawmaker killed in an attack was Ian Gow, who died after a bomb planted by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) exploded under his car at his home in southern England in 1990.

But while murders are rare, attacks and threats at surgeries and offices are, if not commonplace, increasing. Just last week, Conservative lawmaker Gavin Barwell, told local media he had been threatened by a man with a knife at his office.


Talking about the circumstances of Cox’s death to an audience of businessmen, Conservative finance minister George Osborne called the “everyday accessibility” of lawmakers “one of the virtues of our parliamentary democracy”.

“It’s what makes the way we govern ourselves very different from many others,” Osborne said late on Thursday after tearing up a speech in which he was expected to press his warnings of a hit to the economy if Britain voted to leave the EU next week.

“To be an effective representative, all of us who are MPs engage with their communities, talk to everyone and anyone, hold constituency surgeries and must be prepared to stand up and argue publicly for what we believe.”

But those arguments can see tempers flare, especially when they pit lawmakers against the voters who elected them.

Cox had complained to police after receiving “malicious communications” and a man was arrested and later released with a caution in connection with the investigation in March.

Last month, Labour lawmaker Jess Phillips said she may quit Twitter after she was sent more than 600 messages in one night about raping her after she had taken part in a campaign to end sexist bullying on line. Other female lawmakers have complained of abuse on social media.

On Friday, Britain’s Labour Party said police had questioned a man over an abusive phone call to Ben Bradshaw, a lawmaker in southwestern England. It did not say what the call was about.

A report published earlier this year in the Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology recommended more protection for lawmakers after finding nearly one in five of the 239 lawmakers who responded said they had been attacked or experienced an attempted attack.

Fifty-three percent said they had been stalked or harassed.

Some lawmakers, in the report, described their constituents getting frustrated when they could not solve their problems, cases when locals developed fixations on them and also times when people tried to influence voting by issuing threats.

“One MP (member of parliament) described how she had to get her husband to go out and look down the street before she could go out of the front door,” it said after experiencing “intrusive behavior”.

“She had panic attacks several times a day, even in the House of Commons, leading to a ‘mad way of life’.”

But while there are calls for better security for lawmakers, many said they had little option but to stick by their commitment to meet their electorates.

“I plan to keep to all my engagements today, including my surgery,” Labour lawmaker Jonathan Reynolds said on Twitter. “I will ensure there is security present however.”

Editing by Peter Millership, Janet McBride