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Martin Bell: 'The House of Commons cannot be trusted to police itself' [Oct. 26th, 2009|04:56 pm]
Battle of Ideas
Martin Bell (left) is interviewed by Angus Kennedy. Martin is speaking at the Parliament: reform or revolution? debate at the Battle of Ides 2009 festival on Saturday 31 October at the Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London SW7 2EU (www.battleofideas.org.uk). His book A Very British Revolution published by Icon is out now.

This is an edited transcript of a verbatim interview for the Battles in print series. To read this and other Battles in print go to www.battleofideas.org.uk

Angus Kennedy: One of the things that comes across very strongly at the beginning of the book is your expression of people's anger at the expenses scandal. You refer to Cromwell's purging of the Rump Parliament.. the lynch mob atmosphere on Question Time, you wrote the book very quickly at the time, in ten weeks or so, do you believe that anger is still there now?

Martin Bell: I believe so, I think it's really touch and go. It's very difficult to know because we are coming towards the end of an 82 day parliamentary recess at a time when many MPs have apparently been unwilling to show their faces in their own constituencies, reluctant to go to Tesco in case someone asks them who's paying for it. I think some of them will hope by the time they return it will have calmed down and they can go back to business as usual. The anger was very real: they have felt it on the doorstep when they go canvassing and so on. I've never known a time when everyone is talking politics. I may be wrong but I think it's still there.

It's happened before though; there seem to be regular expressions of anti-sleaze, of popular anger that pop up from time to time. How significant are they really?

I was the beneficiary of one of them in 1997. But I think the scale is different, we were talking then about two dozen MPs, all Tories as it happened: they all left in one way or another, all except Neil Hamilton and he was deposed. I think this is more serious because this is as it were the entire political class... I think it's the scale that makes this different and the character of it. The phantom mortgages: this is something that if it had happened in a private company or a public corporation; I mean not only would the person involved be straight out of the door but the police would be involved from the start. There are also some practices so distasteful honestly. I mean the idea that an MP because you're elected to Parliament that you can justify having the taxpayer pay your grocery bills - the idea would never have occurred to me. Completely shameless. I never knew about it.

Let's talk about that question of political direction and political leadership because the title of the book, A Very British Revolution, posed a question for me - and it relates to the anger question, where did it come from - is this scandal and how it's been playing out driven by the anger of ordinary people or does it reflect a lack of vision, almost the implosion of the political class? Is it then any wonder that this is reflected in people asking the 'what are you for' question?

They came in on that platform, the promise to clean things up and then they actually ignored it as an issue. If you look at the way that Alistair Graham's Committee on Standards in Public Life was completely sidelined by Tony Blair and I quote Graham in the book saying that his greatest regret was his failure to convince the Prime Minister to put ethical thinking and ethical behaviour at the centre of his agenda. But my first choice for a title was Swindlers' List which I preferred but my publishers thought it was too jokey. But A Very British Revolution is accurate: we haven't had a political revolution since the Civil War, since the Rump Parliament was thrown out and so on. We've always preferred evolution to revolution. And maybe... the revolution has only kind of half happened. The chapter about what happened to the Parliament Standards Bill and its passage through Parliament in the month before the recess, so many of its teeth were drawn, Parliament still retains the essential right of self-regulation.

The parliamentary sovereignty question, how important is that to you: do you see any dangers in Parliament being policed in some sense?

I actually share the view of Peter Oborne, that he'd always been in favour of the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty but when he saw what these people had been doing, the answer was that they're not to be trusted. I was for three and a half years on the Standards and Privileges Committee so I saw the regulatory machinery in action and some members of that committee left their party allegiances at the committee room door and others did not... My experience is that the House of Commons cannot be trusted to police itself.

(Photo: Getty Images)