Yesterday my gigantically intelligent, charming and attractive niece, Livvy Utley, found herself locked into Parliament for many hours as a result of the murder, in and near to the Parliamentary estate, of three innocent people by a deranged criminal. Livvy, I should explain, works for an MP.
Thirty eight years ago next week I was working for an MP in the House of Commons when INLA killed Airey Neave MP by planting a bomb in his car. The bomb exploded as he drove the car up the ramp from the Commons underground car park. By chance, I was making my way to the car park when the bomb went off. I was one of the first people on the scene. I hasten to say that I did nothing at all heroic. Indeed, I knew there was nothing I could do except watch the emergency services rush into action.
Security at Westminster has changed out of all recognition since 1979. You might, for instance, ask why I, a mere MP’s assistant, should have been on my way to the Members’ car park. The answer is that, back then, we few employees of MPs (most members shared a secretary – an average of three MPs to each secretary – and there were only about a dozen MPs’ research assistants in the whole place) were allowed to use the Members’ car park on Fridays and non-sitting days. 30th March 1979 was a Friday. I had driven in and parked my car, an ancient Mini, ready to drive to Cambridge in order to take a rather attractive female undergraduate out for dinner.
Obviously, I will always remember that day. I heard the explosion. Moments later I saw the wrecked car half way up the ramp. I knew there had to be someone inside it. I didn’t know, until later, that that person was my parents’ old friend, Airey Neave, a man I knew (and enormously admired) myself. But my horror was not diminished by being unaware that the victim was someone I knew. The experience of witnessing that vile murder was shocking in the extreme.
What do I remember of what happened later? Not a great deal. Rather foolishly, after Mr Neave had been taken to hospital (he died there within about an hour) I did ask a policeman whether I would soon be allowed to drive my own car out of the car park. But I had no difficulty in accepting that that would be impossible until the next day. I went back to the room where I worked and telephoned the pretty Cambridge girl to explain that she would have to dine alone (which must have been a great relief to her). I then went home by public transport.
There was no suggestion that anyone working in the Palace of Westminster that day should hang around for a few hours. We were all allowed to leave whenever we wanted to, even those, like me, who had witnessed the explosion. I suppose it must have been obvious to the police that none of us could have been of any assistance in their inquiries.
Yesterday seems to have been quite different. The numbers of people who work in the Palace are now vastly greater than they were in 1979. Thousands of MPs and their employees were in the Palace itself, in Portcullis House (a monstrosity built to satisfy MPs’ belief that they are important executives who have to have lots of staff), in Norman Shaw North and in Norman Shaw South (both gigantic office buildings). All of those people, together with peers and their staff, including my exceptionally talented niece, were subject to something called a “lock-in”. They were not allowed to leave for about six hours.
No one, understandably, has complained about that pointless overreaction to the dreadful crime. Certainly, my niece has not done so. But perhaps I can be forgiven for daring to suggest that it really was a pointless overreaction. The television pictures show us, not surprisingly, that there were a great many tourists and others in the vicinity of the Palace. The police made no attempt to incarcerate them. On the contrary, even though many of them (unlike all those MPs and their staff) will have witnessed the crime, they were told in no uncertain terms that they were required to leave the scene as soon as possible. Only those inside the Palace or its associated offices (people who were highly unlikely to have seen anything) were locked in.
It was, of course, as most things are these days, a box-ticking exercise. In the event of any terrorist attack on the Houses of Parliament, the police form said, the Palace must be locked down and no one allowed to leave it. One can certainly imagine circumstances in which that would be a sensible reaction to an attack. If it took place within the Palace itself there would be an obvious possibility that criminals would still be there. It might be an inside job. It would make sense to prevent anyone from leaving. But that was not yesterday’s attack. The police must have known, for certain, within about half an hour, that no terrorist, other than the one who had driven the car along the pavement of Westminster Bridge, had got into the Palace, and he only got a few yards into New Palace Yard. I accept it was prudent to assume, until disproved, that the criminal had an accomplice in the car with him. But it was plain for all to see that, if that was the case, the accomplice had not got into the Palace. Yes, such an accomplice could be at large outside the Palace. But that wasn’t the reason for the lock down. If it was, it was appalling that those outside were not being protected.
Only a non-party politician could make these points. Any MP who complained about being imprisoned in the Palace by the police would be mauled by the tabloids the next day (and, anyway, many of them will have thought that the very fact they had been kept in the Palace for so long might have led their constituents to believe they were in some way heroic). They all had to say how wonderful the police were to incarcerate them for hours. But, really, surely, anyone who has a brain which operates at all logically must conclude that the lock-in was plainly unnecessary.
I am lucky. No one reads my blog. If I had a wide readership I would be accused by every tabloid out there of being evil for daring to suggest the police got anything wrong yesterday. But that doesn’t matter a great deal. Indeed, the overreaction clearly caused no serious problem.
Nevertheless, I warn you that there will be those who advocate damaging overreactions to yesterday’s crime. It happened as early as last night. The BBC invited a preposterous woman (I didn’t catch her name) to review the newspaper coverage of the crime. She had only one point to make, and she made it endlessly. A law should be passed, she insisted, to prohibit pedestrians from walking across Westminster Bridge. We must just pray that Mrs May, who rather likes knee-jerk reactions to these things, will not fall for that one.