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Martin Bell goes to war…via the pen

Phil Hamer has an exclusive interview with Martin Bell prior to his Friday signing session in Manchester

Published on September 13th 2007.

Martin Bell goes to war…via the pen

Not only did 1997 herald the New Labour landslide, it brought into politics the former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell in his hallmark white suit. Standing as an Independent he epitomised the disgust with sleaze which had doomed the Tory government.

With a staggering 12,000 majority he became the right honourable member for the Tatton constituency in Cheshire ousting the sitting member and participant in the notorious ‘cash for questions’ scandal Neil Hamilton. This sent Hamilton and his formidable spouse Christine “forever onto the comedy circuit,” as Bell puts it.

It would have been hard to predict at that point in time that Bell would eventually be directing his disgust at the Labour government as they also descended into a mire of lies and corruption. Though he is largely supportive of the Labour government’s first term, particularly Tony Blair’s work in Northern Ireland, he believes all the good work has been overshadowed by Iraq.

As promised he served only one term as an MP and despite overtures to repeat his Tatton crusade – this time in protest at Labour MPs sleeze - he resisted. An unbelievably youthful looking 69, Bell has now catalogued the last ten years that he sees as a critical, catastrophic breach of trust between new Labour and the British people in an excoriating book The Truth That Sticks (Icon Books £16.99). The title is from an Arthur Miller quote ‘why is betrayal the only truth that sticks?’ and in the author’s words “no writer of fiction would have attempted a story like this. So much of what happened was unpredictable and, in retrospect, unbelievable.”

It’s a book that begs to be read by anyone concerned about the current state of political life in this country at a time when people’s trust in their rulers has never been so low.

“Part of the trouble is that politicians today are almost solely career politicians who are fiercely ambitious and driven to succeed at someone else’s expense. Elections by their very nature are adversarial contests. Politicians are also surrounded by acolytes who succeed in blinding them to realities much of the time so that when it comes to making decisions they often fail the people,” says Bell.

Gordon Brown’s succession to the premiership does invoke an optimistic response from Martin Bell, “he has started well and the tone is very different. We no longer hear that meaningless phrase “the war on terror” for example. Do you also see the way Blair seems to have been totally expunged from the political scene? It’s as if he’d never existed. Like one of those generals who would suddenly fall out of favour in Stalin’s Russia.”

Bell surprises me by saying that he has never ever met Blair face to face, only spoken briefly to him once on the phone.

Bell has a rare legitimacy as an observer of what he believes to be the cacophony of falsehoods that culminated in the Iraq invasion. He was wounded by shrapnel, on camera in August 1992 during the Bosnian conflict. As he points out in the book none of today’s leading politicians have seen a shot fired in anger. If they had he suggests they would be less keen to place in harm’s way “our boys”-“everybody else’s except your own” as, Bell’s hero, the veteran war reporter James Cameron, once described the public’s ambivalence towards soldiers.

He cites his experiences in the Balkan wars of the early 1990s as being instrumental in moulding the views he holds today, “what I saw there made me question the decisions politicians make and how catastrophic they can be for all of us when they get it wrong.” He makes a convincing argument that events in the Balkans led to 9/11.

After his own National Service soldiering and many years as a correspondent covering several conflicts Bell knows and respects the military and is especially concerned about their current welfare in relation to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars:

“If the public had any idea of the scale of the soldiers’ injuries –the many hundreds disabled in body and mind-they would have risen up in anger long ago. The families know this well enough. But the Ministry of Defence has kept this information from the wider public.”

Bell says that we have to wake up quickly to the reality that war is not the answer to the world’s problems. Our political leaders must be reminded that war is dreadful and bloody and not the way to settle any of our differences. He is also unequivocal about what has to be done if we are to never ever repeat the Iraq mistake again:

“We need an inquiry to do for the Iraq war what the Esher inquiry did for the Boer war a century ago - unflinching and unsparing of reputations. We also owe it to those whose country we invaded and whose many dead remain uncounted.”

Martin Bell will be talking and signing copies of his book at Waterstones, Deansgate on Friday 14th Sept at 7pm.

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Jonathan Schofield - editorSeptember 13th 2007.

Mr G.Ramsey, as you've spotted Manchester Confidential has been evolving. Our aim is to be an independent magazine for Manchester. Of course there will be competitions and offers -infact there will be more of them - but we will back it up with content from our editorial team and guest writers which is designed to intrique and entertain. My aim is to make Manchester Confidential funny, serious, sharp and exciting. Nothing need prevent a website from acheiving this, although it may take time for people to get used to it. This already appears to be happening as we have leapt from the massive figure of more than 60,000 unique visitors per month to the vaster figure of 80,000 plus every month. This gives a readership well in excess of 150,000. If Little Chef had started serving decent food - foie gras perhaps - it may not have flopped so badly in recent years.

G. RamseySeptember 13th 2007.

A fine article this. But logging on to the site after a few weeks away, I'm finding the journalistic equivalent of Foie Gras served in the Little Chef. Or to bring it closer to home - Helmut Newton on Red Hot Dutch. Silk purses... sow's ears... What is Manchester Confidential? Why is Manchester Confidential?

JohnSeptember 13th 2007.

"Did New Labour betray our trust?", damn right it did. I'm almost exactly Tony Blair's age and that was one of the many factors that made me rejoice when his government unseated the foul Tory sleazebags that had a seemingly unbreakable stranglehold on this country. I knew exactly the influences that Blair would have had from growing up in the sixties and expected an enlightened socialism tinged with an economic realism unlike his Old Labour predecessors. Instead, I watched with increasing horror as he dismantled the education system that had served our generation so well, dumbing down the standards until British educational qualifications became worthless. No, Tony, socialism doesn't mean everyone is entitled to a degree regardless of intellect, it means that everyone is entitled to study for a qualification regardless of means. The destruction of the free tertiary education system by the very generation that benefitted the most from it has resulted in a student population working part time as escorts and petty drug dealers. Blair should hang his head in shame.

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