The National:

THE appalling killing of Sir David Amess, Tory MP for Southend West, generated shock right across the political spectrum of the UK. Instantly, one thought of the 2016 murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox who was killed on her way to a surgery and of the incident in 2000 where an attack on Nigel Jones MP resulted in the killing of his aide Andrew Pennington. In response to the murder of David Amess it seems likely that physical security around surgeries and elsewhere will be improved for both MPs and MSPs. But as well as improving the physical security of MPs, and other elected representatives such as MSPs and councillors, consideration should be given to changing the criminal law to protect them.

Although attacks on MPs have occurred in England, we should not be complacent in Scotland merely because no MP or MSP has lost their life yet. SNP MP Joanna Cherry said today that she has considered leaving politics due to harassment and abuse, and other representatives have spoken out about vile threats directed towards them.

To attack any politician MP, MSP or councillor is to attack democracy and is to display a hatred for democracy, and so we should impose higher sentences on those who attack our politicians. This could be done by analogy with the measures that have been taken against hate.

READ MORE: Sir David Amess tributes: Ian Blackford calls for end to 'toxic culture of hate'

In Scotland the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021 deals with hate crime in three ways. Firstly, under s.1 any criminal offence is “aggravated” if motivated by prejudice towards the victim on grounds of age, disability, race, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity or variations in sex characteristics. If an offence has been found to be so aggravated, then the court may impose a heavier sentence. Secondly, under s.3 a person may be convicted of the specific offence of racially aggravated harassment. Lastly, under s.4 there is a specific offence of stirring up hatred against the victim on grounds of age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity, or variations in sex characteristics.

Convictions under s.3 and 4 are punishable for up to 12 years if tried by a judge alone or up to 7 years if tried before a jury. It seems to me that it would be fairly straightforward to amend the 2021 Act in a way as to protect additional legal protection to all elected representatives: MPs, MSPs and councillors. S.1 could be amended to provide that any criminal offence could be aggravated if motivated by prejudice against an elected representative. Any physical or verbal attack or assault on a politician should be deemed to be an “aggravated offence” in the same way that an assault can be aggrieved if it is motivated by racial or religious hatred. Where an offence is so aggravated then, on conviction the accused would receive a more severe sentence.

The National:

Scotland could lead the way on protecting parliamentarians, argues Scott Crichton Styles

Likewise, the crime of racial harassment could be complemented by creating a distinct crime of anti-democratic aggravated harassment to cover the harassment of elected officials. There should also be a specific crime of murdering an elected official with a long-minimum tariff, say 30 years with no possibility of parole, analogous to the existing penalties for killing a police officer or prison warden in the course of their duties.

If there was political consensus around all or some of these measures then these changes could be swiftly enacted by Holyrood, which would both reassure elected representatives and send a strong signal about the value of democracy in Scotland. Obviously, Holyrood can only legislate for offences committed within Scotland, but given what seems to be an emerging UK wide consensus about the need to do more to protect elected representatives it seems reasonable to assume that Westminster, the Welsh Senedd and the Northern Ireland Assembly would follow a lead from Edinburgh on this.