Acton Institute Powerblog

The political murder of Sir David Amess shines a light on the virtues of public service

(Image credit: Associated Press)

The stabbing death of Sir David Amess as he met with constituents is both an occasion of mourning and horror but also a time to consider the animating principles of the best of our public servants, and the price they sometimes pay for their commitment to the public good. […]

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The name of Sir David Amess, a Conservative member of the British Parliament for 39 years, was little known in the U.K., and almost certainly not at all known in the United States. On Oct. 15, 2021, shortly after midday, he was murdered while meeting constituents in Belfairs Methodist Church, in his electoral district. He was stabbed multiple times. Police and paramedics fought for two hours to save him, but he died at the scene. The shock across the nation was palpable.

For the second time in five years, an elected politician had been murdered while carrying out their job—the first occasion was the Labour Member of Parliament Jo Cox, in 2016. The arrested suspect in the case of David Amess, Ali Harbi Ali, had been previously reported to the government’s anti-terrorist program.

David was a devout Roman Catholic, a social conservative on moral issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, a libertarian on matters of COVID-19 restrictions and lockdown, and a proponent of Brexit—a mix of views and opinions far more representative of much of the British public than that represented by the mainstream media, not least the BBC. Sir David’s parliamentary district, Southend West, in the county of Essex, lies only 50 miles to the east of London, an approximately one-hour drive away. Yet in terms of outlook and political leanings, the area could not be further removed from the London metropolitan elite. In the 2019 general election, the Conservative Party won all 18 districts in Essex, polling around 65% of the vote. And the elected members are, for the most part, genuine conservatives like Sir David. Faith, patriotism, and concerns around immigration, alongside a resistance to socialism and a passion for community, characterize these districts.

The pictures of the vigils held for David and the shock across the community illustrate that here was an elected official who, contrary to the way politicians are often represented by the media, was genuinely loved in and by his community. Somewhat sadder was the refusal of the police to admit to the scene his Roman Catholic priest and friend, Fr. Jeffrey Woolnough, so that he could administer the Last Rites. Fr. Woolnough prayed outside instead.

It should be remembered that just three weeks earlier, the Labour Party’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, had described her Conservative political opponents as “a bunch of scum, homophobic, racist, misogynist, absolute vile.” She remains in office.

A politician motivated by passion, generosity, kindness, and a lack of ambition for high office, who simply wanted to serve his constituents—this is the picture of Sir David that has emerged in tributes from across the political spectrum, illustrating how he had shown kindness to those he disagreed with politically, repeatedly resisting pressure from his own party to “toe the line” while remaining steadfast to his principles.

Here are some examples of those principles from his life and service:

  • Sir David’s robust kindness came from his deep-rooted Roman Catholic faith. The central importance of Christian faith needs to be allowed to shine forth again as a primary principle of public service. Faith underpins not only a determination to stand for what is right but also a character-forming and shaping spirituality that recognizes the dignity of all human beings. This is the combination that motivated David Amess.
  • One Labour MP, Ian Byrne, representing a safe socialist district in Liverpool, revealed that after his own maiden speech in Parliament, Sir David had written to him privately saying he had enjoyed his speech and wishing him a long and happy career in Parliament. A second principle of public service is surely seeing the best in others, recognizing that those called into public service enter the political arena with the highest of motives, to serve the nation and the people of their communities.
  • Another principle exemplified by Sir David was that of tenacity. For example, he campaigned for a memorial statue to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary during the Second World War. He failed to secure the structure in 1990 but kept on fighting; a statue was eventually unveiled by Her Majesty the Queen in 1997.
  • He understood the importance of civil society and its institutions. Sir David campaigned for the disabled, particularly supporting the Music Man Project, which helps the disabled and those with learning disabilities play musical instruments. He even played a key role in organizing a concert at one of London’s premier concert venues, the Royal Albert Hall. He said, “It is through active citizenship, through many voluntary organisations … that we demonstrate every day, week and month that we are a truly caring society.”
  • Sir David was willing to embrace unpopular positions. He had passions that took him away from normal party-political campaigns and embraced concerns as wide-ranging as fuel poverty and animal welfare. In other words, he thought for himself and about where he could make a difference.
  • His principles could not be bought. On one occasion a call was received into the office suggesting that if Sir David voted the “right way” on a particular piece of legislation, he could be considered for ministerial office. He did not return the call. In fact, his former office manager Ed Holmes reported that he once spent a whole afternoon with the Member of Parliament searching his office for a lost invitation to a constituency charity event. Nothing was more important than that.

What does all this tell us about the principles of public service that underpinned the life and career of a little-known British politician? Well, we can learn about kindness and respect for others, the nature of the call to political service, a passion to make a difference and to serve people. We can learn about the honorable and selfless nature of public service. We can see why the vitriolic language that plagues our political discourse needs to be set aside. We learn of faith, those animating principles of life that have guided thousands of men and women into public service. And we can thank those men and women, pray for them, and affirm what ordinary politicians do on behalf of the people they serve.

There is no better way to end than by sharing part of the statement released by Sir David’s family the day after his murder, describing their pain and how their hearts were shattered. But they also wanted to emphasize that:

Strong and courageous is an appropriate way to describe David. He was a patriot and a man of peace. So, we ask people to set aside their differences and show kindness and love to all.

Sir David Amess (1952–2021), Member of Parliament for Basildon (1983–1997) and Southend West (1997–2021), married to Julia, with whom he had five children. A man of faith and service. Rest in peace.

Richard Turnbull

Rev. Dr. Richard Turnbull is the director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics and a trustee of the Christian Institute. He holds a degree in Economics and Accounting and spent over eight years as a Chartered Accountant with Ernst and Young and served as the youngest ever member of the Press Council. Richard also holds a first class honours degree in Theology and PhD in Theology from the University of Durham. He was ordained into the ministry of the Church of England in 1994. Richard served in the pastoral ministry for over 10 years. He was also for 7 years the Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He has authored several books, is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a visiting Professor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.