By Barry Gardiner
Whose name will be remembered? That of the police officer Keith Palmer or that of the man who knifed him to death after mowing down and killing three pedestrians?
Keith Palmer probably would not have described himself as defending democracy, but he was. Most of his days on duty at Carriage Gates were pretty ordinary: taken up with directing tourists and smiling for selfies with visitors in front of Big Ben.
Wednesday March 22 was not ordinary. At 2.40pm – almost exactly the moment a black four-by-four was mowing down innocent people on Westminster Bridge – I was in the voting lobby for the first of three votes.
In parliament each vote takes about 15 minutes for MPs to arrive and file
through so, after I had voted, I went into the Members tea room a few feet away to get something for a late lunch.
It was going to be a long afternoon as I was opening for the Opposition in an important debate on The Implications of Brexit for International Trade.
I had spent over eight hours drafting and redrafting the speech; little did I suspect the debate would never happen.
As I was sitting in the tea room, a colleague came in and announced that somebody had been shot in New Palace Yard. A group of us got up and switched the parliamentary monitor to BBC News.
As we were standing there trying to get some information, I heard shouting outside in the courtyard below and went to the window to see three young men rushing past still shouting.
I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but it was absolutely clear they were not larking about. I thought they were running after someone. In
fact they were running away from the area where the attack had happened.
My instinct was to go out to see what was happening but as I went out of the tea room to investigate I was told by one of the sergeants at arms the building was under attack and I should not go outside.
So I went next door into the Commons Library and tried to find out more information from the monitor. At 2.59pm I got a text saying that a “Car on Westminster Bridge has just mowed down people!!” I phoned my office manager and asked where all my staff were.
She said that everyone was in the office but that they were planning to go outside and over to Portcullis House. I advised her that everyone should stay where they were unless they were told otherwise by the security officers.
She agreed to keep everyone there. I knew that the security protocol directed that MPs should go into lockdown in the Commons Chamber and so I tried to proceed to the Chamber only to find the lockdown had already happened
and I was on the wrong side of security.
At this stage we had no knowledge of how many attackers there might be and, in this uncertainty, there was nothing to do but return to the library.
There were perhaps 25 people there, both MPs and staff. We were corralled for several minutes before I heard shouting in the corridor.
A heavily armed officer in military fatigues came in and barked orders we should file out and follow his colleague to a more secure area. The overwhelming mood at this stage was one of calm and there appeared to be a very British sense of queueing up and following the proper procedures.As we filed dutifully to safety, a SWAT team came down the corridor in the other direction, automatic rifles at the ready and pointing into doorways as they checked the area.
We were led down to the basement area known as Lower Ministerial Corridor – a grandiose name for a set of perches for ministers away from their departments to do a bit of work between votes in the Commons.
En route our numbers swelled as we were joined by other groups of MPs, staff working in Westminster and members of the public. Nick Hurd MP, the Tory climate change minister, offered me a seat in his office.
There we watched with mounting disbelief as BBC News established the scale of the carnage that had taken place. After about 45 minutes we were again
told by security we should move and would be escorted off the parliamentary estate to Westminster Abbey.
We were ushered out of the St Stephen’s Entrance and across the road by numerous armed security officers of police and what appeared to be army.
On arriving in Westminster Abbey the staff made everyone feel welcome and the Dean said a prayer. We were advised by the senior police officer that we would be held until they established what had happened and had searched and swept the Palace of Westminster.
We were told that each of us would have to be interviewed and that we therefore might be detained for some hours.
I had little battery left on my phone, so after texting my family to reassure them I was OK, I telephoned my darling wife Caroline to let her know if I went out of contact she should not worry because I was safe and it was just my battery going flat.
The text messages began to mount as friends across the world heard the news and texted to check if I was safe, so I put out a reassuring tweet thanking friends.
I was seated next to a mother who had brought her three children from Connecticut, USA. The children were about 10, seven and five years of age; their mother doing her best to keep them occupied and herself sane.
It was a battle she was not going to win until I asked the children if they knew how to play “One Spot Harry”. They did not, but soon learned – it is both the simplest and the most difficult game in the world at the same time.
The surreal nature of playing a parlour game with young children under armed
guard in Westminster Abbey is something I shall not forget quickly.
Over the next three or four hours information came in desultory batches and nobody seemed clear about the facts. Staff made coffee and tea and biscuits available for the thousand or so of us who found ourselves detained.
In that time I did not hear one person grumble. Everyone was only too conscious we were the lucky ones that day. We knew that others who that morning had every expectation of returning home to their families
that night would not be doing so.
The next day, parliament began with prayers as it always does. The House of Commons chamber was packed as MPs assembled to remember the courage of those who had put themselves into harm’s way in order to protect our parliament.
Every one of us was clear that the attack was not on us as MPs; we are only the temporary instruments of our democracy and our lives are no more or less valuable than anyone else in and around the parliamentary estate last Wednesday.
What was attacked was our democracy itself and the value that it embodies.
Our parliamentary system represents an enormous threat to the terrorist. It asserts that it is possible for people who hold differing views about what is most important in life to come together and organise their relations with one
another by the use of rational and reasonable debate alone.
That is why the name of PC Keith Palmer will long be remembered and the person who launched the attack on him, and our democratic institutions, will be forgotten as little more than a violent psychopath.