It is always the police, our selfless human shields, who suffer the first blow.
Whatever you do for a living, whatever drudgery it brings, it is humbling to remember that there are men and women whose job it is to stand between you and danger.
There is much we do not know about what happened yesterday. Investigators are still working to piece together the timeline of terror. But we do know this: When the seat of our democracy came under attack, it was a police officer who stood in the way and a police officer who gave their life to protect Parliament.
Four hundred miles north, the Scottish Parliament was debating independence. It seems they debate little else. The SNP wants a second referendum and is pushing a vote through Holyrood to approve a Section 30 order, an instrument to ask Westminster to allow another vote on Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom.
The debate began at 2.40pm, culture secretary Fiona Hyslop leading for the Scottish Government. Soon, the mood changed. Phones began to buzz. Voices murmured. Oaths came in shocked whispers. Social media was breaking the news of an attack at the Palace of Westminster. At Holyrood, debate continued.
Nicola Sturgeon suddenly left the chamber. Parliamentary authorities met at 3pm and it was decided not to suspended the business of the chamber. It was felt this would be seen as a concession to terror.
MSPs pressed on but the debate meandered, talking points bounced around but none landed. It was as if the air had been sucked out of the chamber.
Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser raised a point of order, asking for Holyrood to be suspended. MSPs, he reasoned, could not focus on the matter at issue knowing that their colleagues down south were under siege. This drew groans from a few on the Nationalist benches.
Linda Fabiani, the deputy presiding officer, held the line. The debate would continue. ‘Business as usual,’ she chirped, perhaps in doughty defiance of the callow assassin but the sentiment sounded crass and tin-eared.
A ‘serious incident’ had taken place, as police term such events in the initial hours, and our national legislature was the scene of crisis. This was not a difficult call; a sense of decency does not require a committee meeting.
Finlay Carson, a Tory MSP, walked out in disgust; but partisan exchanges went on while Scotland’s representatives at Westminster were under lockdown, the hallowed chamber of the world’s greatest parliament turned into an ad hoc panic room.
At 4pm, presiding officer Ken Macintosh took the chair and called a halt to the whole unseemly farce, citing the attack on ‘our sister parliament’ and its impact on the Holyrood debate. As if that squalid 80 minutes amounted to anything on a day like this.
But if Mr Macintosh did not rise to the moment, there were others who sank to it. SNP environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham turned in the direction of the Tory benches, jabbing her finger. It is alleged that she hissed: ‘This is because you didn’t want to talk about independence.’ When you orient your politics around demonising Westminster, turning the very name into an epithet, I suppose you will react like that.
Those were the words of a cabinet secretary. If Miss Cunningham remains in post, her barb will carry the imprimatur of the Scottish Government and the First Minister. And Republican Rose will have earned a new nickname: Repugnant Rose.
Try as I might to love Holyrood, it has too many days like yesterday. Too many small days.
Leaving the Scottish Parliament last night, I passed the police officers standing guard at the entrance. My eyes went straight to their hands, and then their hips. No Heckler & Koch slung across the torso; no Glock 17 strapped to the thigh. Our tradition of policing by consent, Peel’s ideal of the community pillar keeping the Queen’s peace with a smile and a tip of the hat, is a source of pride in British democracy.
I said goodnight to the officers, and ‘thank you’. I walked off, up the Royal Mile, in glum contemplation of how much longer this world will let us keep our friendly bobbies.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.