Martin Bell is a troublemaker. He says so himself: ‘I go and make trouble because I can speak up against abuses in the way MPs can’t.’ This may explain why politicians like Blair, Brown and their cronies become so agitated when they hear Martin Bell is around.
A BBC war correspondent for thirty years, he reported from the conflicts in Vietnam, the Middle East, Rwanda and Northern Ireland among many others. In a change of career, Bell was elected to Parliament in 1997 as an independent MP in the previously thought safe Conservative constituency of Tatton, in Cheshire. He stood against the Conservative MP Neil Hamilton, who was at the time embroiled in the ‘cash-for-questions’ sleaze; Bell won the seat, overturning Hamilton’s majority of more than 20,000.
Reading Bell’s latest book, The Truth that Sticks: New Labour’s Breach of Trust, reveals why unscrupulous politicians are right to be wary of him. Bell sets out in no-nonsense terms New Labour’s deceptions in taking us to war in Iraq, the sleaze now endemic in the House of Commons and a multitude of other betrayals of public trust.
In March 2003, Tony Blair reported to the British public on the threat we faced from Iraq, based on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), which he warned us that Saddam Hussein possessed and which could be deployed within 45 minutes. I ask Bell about this. ‘We were totally misled. I can think of no public argument in my lifetime in which one side has won and the other’s lost more absolutely than here. We were misled. I’d never accuse Mr Blair of being a liar on this, except I think he lied to himself… He wanted to believe for domestic reasons and his political imperative of not separating himself from the White House that these weapons existed. And lo and behold: Alistair Campbell and others came up with a dossier that showed him that they don’t. It was false from start to finish, and as I say in my book I do not think it was a bad government in any other respect, but it made the worst mistake of any British government in my lifetime, by far.’
I put it to Bell that perhaps the war was justified in that some argue that it liberated the Iraqi people, but he will not countenance the idea. ‘No, no, no,’ he says, ‘One side benefit is that it got rid of Saddam Hussein and his sons, but it was not waged, this war, on the basis of regime change. It was waged on the basis of Weapons of Mass Destruction, which didn’t exist. They were wrong. What liberation? We’ve had close to 200 British soldiers dead, and somewhere between 150,000 and 600,000 Iraqis. I mean, what a disaster.’ I ask whether we would have had a chance of winning the war in Afghanistan if it hadn’t been for Iraq. ‘There was a war that was just about winnable in Afghanistan in 2002, but already in 2002 we were holding back equipment from the troops in Afghanistan (for the forthcoming Iraq war)… We can lose both wars.’
On why the government seemed so eager to take us to war, Bell explains, ‘There’s nobody in government now, not a minister or junior minister, who’s ever seen warfare; who understands the nature of soldiering or the nature of warfare. They are therefore more inclined to get into these fiascos. It’s not their sons [on the front line], almost in no cases at all. It’s other people.’ Bell describes Britain’s lack of success in Afghanistan and Iraq as partly due to politicians’ ‘ignorance of history.’
War has its casualties, of course, and I ask how Iraq has affected demand for resources such as Combat Stress, the ex-services mental welfare society. ‘There’s a great cascade of these cases now coming through from the Falklands war, more than 20 years ago. It’s delayed. And of course our British forces now, especially in Afghanistan, are subject to conditions and intensity of fighting the army hasn’t known since the Korean War, in 1953. This is going to become more serious as time goes by.’ He says of the government, ‘To some extent they’re in denial, because they don’t want to talk about casualties….The government certainly doesn’t want to think about the unseen casualties, the people who seem to be normal but are not.’ Bell is dismissive of Britain’s so-called ‘special relationship’ with the US. ‘You’ll never hear the Americans talk about it; it’s entirely a British illusion. If the Mexican president came and visited, the Americans had a special relationship with him.’
I ask Bell whether he believes that Gordon Brown and the Conservatives are now committed to cleaner politics – particularly Labour, as they did after all run their 1997 election campaign on an anti-sleaze, ‘let’s clean up politics’ basis. ‘I thought that they were. I now see they’re not… We now know that corruption in the House of Commons is widespread and endemic. It was a useful slogan in 1997 (‘let’s clean up politics’), and to be fair to the Labour government they put in place the electoral reform, which required a degree of openness in the matter of party funding; so we know now, who gave what money to what party… but the more we see of it, the more deplorable it is… The people are in a state of real rebellion about this.’ Bell describes the situation regarding cash-for-peerages as ‘blatant and outrageous.’
For a man who graduated with a first from King’s College Cambridge and has had a distinguished career, ‘the man in the white suit’ (Bell is well-known for always wearing a white suit) is remarkably modest about his achievements. When I ask him why he first wanted to become a war correspondent – when the risks were so great that he was once almost killed by shrapnel – he shrugs. ‘I never sought it out, it happened to me… I did a few wars then realised I was being asked to do nothing else, but it’s all I was qualified to do, couldn’t get out of it. It happened to me, rather like being an MP.’
As we reach the end of our discussion, I ask Bell to summarise the importance of a new kind of politics. He ponders, ‘I think there has to be someone to speak up for the people against the old kind of politics. People are in politics for what they can get out of it. The abuse of allowances. Political careerism. People go into politics who’ve never had a life outside politics, and they therefore end up taking decisions such as to go to war in Iraq, which was fundamentally flawed and false. We need a better kind of people in politics.’
Then, finally, my curiosity gets the better of any desire I have not to seem rude, and I ask him why he always wears a white suit. ‘Because I’m superstitious. Keeps me alive in dangerous places. During the war in Croatia, in 1991, I had a white suit, it’s summer, all this stuff was flying through the air – none of it hit me, so I ascribe my survival to the white suit.’ This is the end of the interview. Bell has been lively, incredibly outspoken and frank throughout, and I can see why in the world of politics this would lead him to qualify as a ‘troublemaker.’ Troublemaker or not, this is a man on a mission. Politicians, beware.