Martin Bell is a man well-versed in the political world. A Cambridge graduate turned veteran reporter, Bell has led a fascinating life. In 1992 whilst covering the war in Bosnia Bell was wounded by a shrapnel blast from Serbian forces. In 1997 he became MP for Tatton, the first successful independent parliamentary candidate since 1951 (Channel 4 even producing a TV drama loosely based upon his political career). Today, as well as being a revered political commentator he is an amabassador for UNICEF. Donning his inconic white linen suit, he sat down with Exeposé on a sunny Oxford afternoon to discuss parties, politics and pluralism.
To start off, what’s your most interesting anecdote with regards to politics and political journalism?
Well, I’ve got a lot of anecdotes – and a lot of conclusions, chiefly, that politics is too important to be left to the politicians! Probably the most interesting thing was being asked to stand at all. I mean, I had no ambitions of being an MP but I was approached three weeks before the general election in ’97 and they said would I give it a go, and perhaps unwisely I said “yes” and it gave me a whole new range of experiences I’ve never had before.
Would you say it gave you a different perspective on things as well?
Yeah, I mean I was suddenly the guy with the right coloured pass through the press lines. Uh, and I would also say it was a fairly shocking experience because I’m a romantic and I thought the House of Commons would be a more effective cheque on the executive than it is, and I thought the general calibre of MPs would be higher than it is. But I was especially appalled by their tendency to do whatever their Whips asked them to do.
What’s your opinion on the British political system in general?
Um, I think it’s fairly deeply flawed. I’ve come to the conclusion that corruption is not occasional and particular but endemic and that most MPs are honest and honourable but many are not. Corruption is widespread, and I’m deeply unimpressed by the voting system in which we have a government with a substantial majority actually elected by a little over 22% of all the voters, and we dare to impose this system by fools of arms on countries like Iraq and Afghanistan and it doesn’t… No, I’m unimpressed.
What are your preferences for reform of the British political system?
Something called Alternative Vote, which is not quite the same as PR [Proportional Representation] – it has the advantage of a single member constituency so that you know who your MP is, but under this suppose you have five candidates in your constituency you number them in order of preference with second preferences, and with the person who comes last the second preferences are redistributed so you end up with the MP who’s the least unacceptable to most people.
What do you think the likelihood of this getting implemented in Britain is?
Well, I think things have got so bad – I mean, we were not that far away in ’97 when we had a commitment to a reform of the electoral system which of course the government backed off from because this happens time and time again; the government gets in with a big majority and they said “oh, we rather like this system however unfair it is.” But I think it was more or less alright as long as we had a two-party system. Now we’ve got a three-party system, in Scotland and Wales a four-party system – it is delivering an increasingly unfair and unjust result.
What do you thin of the Labour Party at the moment, as well as the Conservatives?
Well, I mean they’re both mass parties with tiny memberships. That is, they have a grip on the system but their memberships… they’re just husks and shells of what they used to be, so they’re not mass movements anymore but particular pressure groups
Do you think this has been affected by a convergence to the political middle?
Well, I think that’s fair enough – you need a majority of the people! It’s not good appealing just to your core root, but I think that people’s party allegiances are much looser than they used to be so they’re more inclined to vote now for the independent-minded or even independents or people outside the status quo.
What do you think about the prospect of a third party becoming increasingly prominent in the UK?
Well, I mean the Lib Dems are a lot more prominent than they used to be. When I was a young man all they had were six MPs. No, I think plurality is good – one of these days one of these big parties is just going to die as the old Liberals did, and that will also be the will of the people so that causes me no sleepless nights.
Do you have any advice for people who want to get involved in politics or the media?
Yeah, my message for young people is especially that if you want the creeps and the cranks to rule your lives all you have to do is nothing and they’ll be happy to oblige – they’re already in place to do that, so there’s no excuse not to get involved in politics, especially if you’re a first-time voter. Look at the candidates, look at the manifestos, see if they answer your particular concerns. Otherwise, you’re just going to leave it to the old folks who vote
What do you think the government could be doing to better encourage young voters?
It has to make a priority – the reestablishment of public trust in public life. It has to crack down its miscreants among MPs. There has to be a massive reform of MP’s expenses. And they need to listen to people; a million people marched against the Iraq War. The Iraq War was the worst decision by a British government in my lifetime and they took no account of it at all! As long as we have this political class which is separate from the people then mistakes of that scale are going to happen.
What would you say to the notion that political participation hasn’t declined, it’s merely working through alternative channels such as public demonstrations, for example? Do you think that’s not working as effectively as it should be?
Well, it causes people to take account, I think the Greens, for instance, are going to do quite well in the European elections and of course the List system and the PR system will favour them. But I think the remainder of parties should be running scared because they’re out of touch.
Who do you see in particular in facing such decline?
I think Labour’s in… I mean, it’s been in power for, what, twelve years – it’s in danger in going back to being a rump socialist party because it failed on the issue of public trust. In my mind it was not the worst government in my lifetime, but this War was the worst decision and everybody agrees it! They voted for it, it wasn’t properly discussed in Parliament, the will of the people was ignored and hundreds of thousands of people are dead who might otherwise be alive. It’s going to haunt them forever. It’s going to haunt Blair forever, he’s overshadowed by this, but otherwise I think he did quite well.
What do you think about the British system compared to the American one, in particular?
Well, I worked in America for twelve years – I was the chief Washington correspondent for the BBC. There’s a lot to be said for it – even just when you despair with it it reinvents itself. It came up at the last presidential election with two heroic figures. With everything with John McCain, from what he came from – extraordinary, doesn’t seem to be able to happen here! They were both mavericks challenging the politics of the status quo, and I take great courage from that. I’m an anti-status quo man.
What do you think about President Obama?
I think he’s a wonderfully promising figure. I think he may disappoint but he won’t betray. But what we must remember is that his prevailing priority must be the American national interest, so he could go for protectionism and so on which he might have to do. But he’s idealistic, he’s clever and he’s got some smart people around him
How do you think Gordon Brown’s handling the economic situation?
I’m not an expert on the G20 because I was so concerned with matters of MP’s expenses. I don’t know – you can come up with a fancy agreement but how does it affect people? I don’t know.