The politics of ‘Ethics man’
Sandy Starr asks anti-sleaze MP Martin Bell what he's standing for this time.
The man in the white suit is back. Former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell successfully stood against disgraced Conservative MP Neil Hamilton as an ‘anti-sleaze’ candidate in Tatton, Cheshire in the 1997 general election.
Now Bell has decided to stand again, in Brentwood and Ongar, Essex, amid a controversy involving a local church. His new moniker? ‘Ethics Man.’
Bell is pleased as Punch with the way that his Brentwood campaign is going. ‘The response was overwhelming, much greater than it was at the same stage in the Tatton campaign. In Tatton they could say “Okay, he was a war reporter, what does he know about politics?”. Now I have four years in parliament, that perceived weakness has gone away.’
It is strange to hear Bell describe his political innocence as a weakness. His independence from the world of politics was his main selling point back in 1997, as he distanced himself from parliamentary sleaze. How has he found parliament in the intervening four years? ‘I haven’t enjoyed it all. It is not as democratic a parliament as I would like it to be. But I’ve learnt more about the place and how to operate in it.’
Bell pledged that he would only serve one term as MP in Tatton – a pledge that added to the impression of a man with no interest in political fame or power. So why is he standing again in a different constituency? ‘I am standing because I have been asked to stand by a large number of people of all political persuasions. It was not my idea, it was theirs.’
Bell is adept at self-deprecation, always claiming to serve the will of the electorate rather than his own interests. I ask him whether he feels that he has done well fighting sleaze as Tatton’s MP, and he does it again. ‘Well I feel I have, but it’s really not for me to judge. It’s for the people who elected me. And they were very happy.’
This tone of self-deprecating self-flattery is sustained throughout An Accidental MP (1), Bell’s book about his parliamentary experiences. He tells me about the updated edition of the book, coming out shortly after the election, which will include an account of his campaign in Brentwood. ‘There will be a new chapter, and I’ve got a title for it. It’s going to be called “Ethics Man”.’
Ah yes, Bell’s unofficial new press-friendly title. So if he’s endorsing it with a chapter heading, presumably he approves of the label? ‘It’s not my own. If it goes in inverted commas, I think it’s pretty safe.’ Of course. Heaven forbid that the white-suited Bell promote himself as Ethics Man.
It is an ethical concern that has prompted Bell to pick Brentwood as his new stomping ground. The 200-strong Peniel Pentecostal Church has allegedly infiltrated key posts in Brentwood’s Conservative Association, and Bell has come to rescue the electorate (2).
He has been widely quoted saying that he wants to take ‘the church out of politics, and the politics out of the church’ (3). Personally, I’m all for the separation of church and state. But Bell has no objection to the church specifically – only to vested interest in government. ‘It doesn’t matter that they’re a church. If it was the Confederation of Candlestick Makers, the same principles would apply.’ In fact, Bell is quite supportive of Brentwood’s contentious church, once sleaze has been removed from the equation: ‘I think I will do the Peniel Pentecostal church a favour, and I’m very conscious that if and when I win, I shall be the member of parliament for the church community.’
Talking of the relationship between church and politics, I recall that the discussion surrounding the 1997 Tatton contest, in which the dominant issue was sleaze, often seemed more like a sermon on the morality of good v evil, with the self-righteous Bell giving the disgraced Hamilton his comeuppance. ‘I think there should be a moral dimension to politics’, retorts Bell.
Is this need for a moral dimension in politics related to Bell’s famous plea for a moral dimension in war journalism, ‘a journalism that cares as well as knows’? (4) ‘Yes, it is. There’s a moral dimension in whatever you do. Otherwise, it’s just a way of earning a living, isn’t it?’ That may be true – but isn’t there a danger that an obsession with the morality of politics can make a more objective assessment difficult? ‘Objectivity is more a journalistic concept, which I don’t entirely buy into anyway. I think politics is mostly common sense, trying to help people, and doing what you think is right rather than what’s expedient.’
Is Bell happy with the prospect of a second term with New Labour in government? ‘It seems inevitable. I think it’s absolutely vital that if the Labour government gets in, with an even larger majority, there should be a loose alliance of backbenchers concerned about democracy and making the executive accountable to parliament again. Otherwise, we get a kind of elected dictatorship.’
Bell’s fears are well-founded, given current projections of the scale of a Labour victory. But his call for backbench criticism might sound a little strange to those who wondered what the almost invisible Bell has been doing in parliament over the past four years.
Having decided to stand as a candidate in a second election, and given the claims that he makes about his popularity, how does Bell see his future political career? ‘I can’t go on doing it. I’m 62 already, I’m past retirement age. I’m not going to be the Screaming Lord Sutch of twenty-first century politics.’
(1) An Accidental MP, Martin Bell. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)
Bell set to run again, BBC News Online, 8 December 2000
(3) ‘”Ethics man” Martin Bell launches battle for Brentwood’, Guardian 15 May 2001
(4) ‘TV news: how far should we go?’, Martin Bell, British Journalism Review, Vol 8 No 1, 1997
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