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"Taking Risks and Taking Risk Seriously"

Dr Julie Smith, POLIS academic and member of the House of Lords, writes of her recent experiences in Westminster


"I am very sorry that I cannot speak to you now but I am in lockdown in Westminster." As excuses for missing a scheduled telephone interview go, it might seem a little extreme but that was my experience on 22nd March when I found myself trapped with hundreds of others inside the Palace of Westminster, uncertain of how much danger we might actually be in. I managed to get the message to a prospective student that I wouldn't be able to talk to them and announces via that double-edged medium of Facebook that I was 'safe but in lockdown'. Then I pondered whether indeed I was safe- the BBC newsfeed was suggesting a 'major incident' on Westminster Bridge, an attack on Parliament and who knew what else.

When masked, armed men came up a staircase and yelled at us to 'get back', we all rushed backwards in a haphazard way, unsure of who they were. Were they, as I had initially assumed, armed police come to save us or terrorists intent on holding us hostage? Like the vast majority of those present, I quickly decided these were indeed the police. They were, and and we were safe- suspicions that another terrorist might be inside the Palace with its miles of passageways under and overground were ill-founded, and eventually there was nothing worse for us than boredom and cold as we were sent to the centuries-old Westminster Hall.

On that day, Parliament and the country as a whole paid tribute to PC Palmer, who lost his life, and to the police force more generally. And rightly so. What went less widely remarked was the sheer number of different nationalities of people killed or injured on the Bridge; a testament both to the UK's multiculturalism and its huge attraction for tourists. 

Three days later I was back in London to attend a March for Europe. Normally, I don't go in for marches and demonstrations, but on this occasion a friend had asked me to speak to the Lib Dem contingent before the rally started and I thought I should agree, given that 'Europe' has been my life's work both professionally and politically. After the attack on 22nd March, I had another reason to go: I felt it was vital to show that we aren't cowed by terrorists. If the Metropolitan Police were willing to police the event, the least we could do was be there- and thank them.

So far, so personal. But these events give me further pause for thought. As Chair of the Graduate Studies Committee in POLIS, I have to sign off on applications for students to work away from Cambridge- until 22nd March, I'd thought little of requests to spend a few weeks in London. What could possibly go wrong? From now on, I know that we must all be more vigilant, even while we continue to go about our daily lives in defiance of those who would do us harm.


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