Thursday, March 11, 1999 Published at 11:18 GMT
An accidental MP
Each week BBC News Online's Nyta Mann talks to a different politician making the news.
Martin Bell wishes he'd kept his big mouth shut. The Independent MP for Tatton vowed at the last election to stand down after one term in Parliament.
He's sorry now. As are the constituents - supporters of all parties in Tatton - who have written to Bell asking him to reconsider. But having campaigned as an all-purpose anti-sleaze candidate, he is determined to deliver on his pledge.
"Well, I regret having made it," he admits. "But obviously I believe, as most people believe, that politicians should keep their promises. Therefore I'm absolutely bound to keep it, and there's no getting around that."
What, even if 20,000 of his constituents were to petition him, hold all-night vigils outside Tatton Town Hall and mass demonstrations on Knutsford Heath, all pleading with him to break his word and stand again? "It would put me in a very difficult and embarrassing position because I've actually made a promise," he laughs. But Bell is not for turning.
"He's certainly interested," he says. "Of course, he's a Labour man. He came up during the campaign from Labour headquarters to help in the last week.
"My daughter met him and one thing led to another. I think he would like a parliamentary career."
The mere fact of being Bell's son-in-law will inevitably lend a squeaky-clean credibility to Bracken. And in solidarity with her husband, Melissa Bell has joined Labour. But the only Independent in the Commons intends to remain scrupulously above the fray come the next election.
"I don't know what's going to happen there, but they do know that if he is selected as the Labour candidate, they don't get father-in-law's endorsement," Bell insists. "Because part of being independent, I said not only will I not stand, but I will not endorse a candidate in the next election."
Goodie vs baddie
Bell was a godsend for Labour at the last election. The Battle for Tatton, with characters straight out of central casting, provided a near-perfect encapsulation of the party's chosen national campaign themes. The plot was a simple one: plucky, unsullied goodie vs tired old sleaze-ridden baddie.
Labour's love of Bell has soured since then. Mr Clean, once so useful, has become an irritant to the government with his harping on about ethics, openness, fairness and the like.
Tony Blair's annoyance was plain last week when Bell challenged him in the Commons to allow more freedom to his backbenchers "so that this place might become rather more the free Parliament of a free people, and rather less a rubber-stamp assembly".
He says of New Labour: "I think there is an over-exaggerated control. Their own backbenchers seldom get out of line. I don't mean just not asking the awkward question, but only asking planted questions.
"And if one more time I have to hear a member congratulating his right honourable friend, that's one more time too many. It's theatre there at the moment, it's not a government being held genuinely to account.
"I think there's a certain, I don't know if arrogance is too strong a word, an out-of-touchness, which is odd for the 'people's party'."
He cites in evidence the secret £373,000 loan from Geoffrey Robinson to Peter Mandelson, which the latter used to buy a posh London townhouse. "Didn't he, the prince of spin and appearances, realise how that would seem to people to whom an MP's salary would be an awful lot of money?" wonders Bell. "I find this strange. These people should be closer to their roots."
Parliament's happiest member
He relishes being his own master in the Commons, answerable only to his conscience and Tatton electors: "I'm probably the happiest MP. I really can do as I like."
But he feels for Labour's drilled parliamentary footsoldiers over their treatment at the hands of the party's Millbank command and control centre.
"I think it's very difficult for them," he sympathises. "It's especially difficult being treated in such a way, you know, being sent off to constituencies for weeks, demands that you 'blitz' 2,000 houses a month or whatever it is, they send out press releases in your name and you just fill in the blanks, the lists of suggested interventions. I mean, it's pretty pathetic."
Of his own politics he says: "I'm a liberal radical conservative. I'm all over the place." Bell opposed the bombing of Iraq last December. He was in favour of the Gulf war in 1990-91, "because that was properly authorised". But "this thing, the bombing of Iraq, is still going on".
Rebel with lots of causes
He says: "We're at war. Nobody mentions it. Tam [Dalyell] tries to get up every day and raise it in some form or another. There's been no debate on it. It's just amazing.... And people who would have been extremely outspoken if this had been going on under a Conservative government are totally silent now. And I find that strange."
He has agitated for a freedom of information law, reform of party funding, and is supporting a Tory move to bring forward legislation for fair financing for both "sides" in referendums.
He is, in short, a rebel without a party. Unsurprising, then, that he should have fallen in with what the party leaderships see as bad company. Among those Bell particularly admires in the Commons are Labour's Tony Benn and Tory Richard Shepherd - both veteran libertarians and followers of principle over the party whip.
Bell recounts a particularly "splendid rebellion by Bob Marshall-Andrews" - another fearless Labour rebel - "for which we got 51 rebels" voting to abolish the right of appointed peers, as well as hereditaries, from voting in the Lords. "Richard Shepherd was in on that one, Tony Benn, Tam Dalyell," he lists. "Very much the usual suspects," he adds with an air of satisfaction.
A lack of great minds
"If I had a party name I'd call it the Little Person's Party," Bell says. "You know, standing up for the little people. I admire people like William Cobbett, George Orwell, Vaclav Havel, people who stood up for principle and did not belong in the big battalions of their time."
The talk turns to politicians of the past few decades who combined being an MP with being men of letters and intellectual stature - the likes of Denis Healey, Ian Gilmour and Michael Foot. The Little Person's MP for Tatton believes the current Parliament lacks big thinkers, and that the calibre of MP is lower than in the past.
Who in the current government, we speculate, is keeping the political diaries that in years to come will stand equal to those of Healey, Gilmour, Tony Crosland and others?
"Alastair Campbell's keeping the diaries and Alastair Campbell's are going to be interesting, because that's where the power lies," is Bell's opinion.
"It's a good point, because how many politicians' memoirs are actually read? Barbara Castle, Denis Healey, Alan Clark, Tony Benn . . . People with something to say and who can write. Well, you can judge mine when they come out. Because they will be done."
They are already nearly half-done, in fact. Bell's own account of his time at Westminster will be published shortly before the next election. He has already chosen the title: An Accidental MP.
Scared to death
He doesn't know yet what he will do once he is no longer an MP. But he isn't worried: "For me something always comes up. It always has. But it won't be politics and it won't be TV news."
Finally, I remind him of his shell-shocked appearance before the media on that Monday of the election campaign when he formally announced his intention to contest Tatton.
Mopping his brow, looking for all the world as if he were reporting some terrible Bosnian tragedy, he gravely declared he was "scared to death. I would rather run the trench-lines of Dobrinja, run Sniper Alley in my armoured car, Miss Piggy, than do this".
Looking back, doesn't he cringe just a little now at the hammy melodrama of that quote? "No, it really was like that," he protests. "As I was driving to get there I was with the same driver who I'd been with in Bosnia, and we drove down a hill the gradient of which almost identical. So it really was like that."
And having overcome that fear, how has he found being a politician? No hesitation in Bell's reply: "Brilliant."
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