Martin Bell on Brexit, Trump and his most recent brush with death
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Everybody has a different reason for sitting down and writing a book. Martin Bell wrote his latest because he nearly died.
Almost two years ago the former BBC war correspondent and independent MP suffered head injuries similar to those from a car crash when he tripped over his suitcase at Gatwick Airport after returning from lecturing onboard a cruise liner.
Surgeons had to effectively rebuild his face after he fractured his right maxilla bone, right and left eye sockets, his nose and an area at the base of his skull. But, he says, it made him return to his laptop.
“It was really my motive for writing the book,” says the 82-year-old over the phone from his home in London. “It was actually a near-death experience and I thought I’ve still got other things to say and I found a way of saying them in my book, which is probably my last.”
The book is War and Peacekeeping, which sits somewhere between a history of peacekeeping and an autobiography, made up of his personal reflections from his time in the field, as well as thoughts on the likes of Brexit and Trump (of which, more later).
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These reflections go back far further than his time as a war correspondent, known for his trademark white suits, when he often observed peacekeeping forces in action. “I did my [national] service as a soldier on the island of Cyprus. And lately, when it was still possible to do it, I’d been guiding bus tours of elderly British people around the island, north and south,” he says.
“And one of my friends is the attaché. And he passed to me a fascinating document, which was a report of why [the British] didn’t intervene when the Turks invaded in 1974.
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“Then I reflected that the regiment that I served in, the 1st Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment, had also been the beginnings of peacekeeping, because they were the ones who hauled down the British flag over the walls of Jerusalem in 1948. And that was actually the beginning of peacekeeping, when the UN brought in a force.”
The book is a reminder that the history of peacekeeping is not an altogether happy one. For the soldiers involved, he points out, “there are no medals for gallantry, no battle honours”.
“Obviously I was a witness to one of the great fiascos and failures of peacekeeping in Bosnia [Bell was wounded by shrapnel in Sarajevo in 1992 while covering the war there], although it worked out in the end.
“But then if you conclude that the international community has the right to intervene, and it’s not sufficiently authorised by the UN, you get the kind of quagmire we got ourselves into in Iraq.”
There is yet to be a textbook example of how a peacekeeping mission should be carried out, he says, although the one in the Sinai desert and Golan Heights after the 1973 Yom Kippur War “did more or less keep the peace”.
Bell’s own personal history could have taken a very different turn too. In 1996 the mobile phone coverage in the snows of southern Serbia meant he missed the call sounding him out to be the official spokesman for Kofi Annan, the incoming UN secretary general. He graciously concedes he “would not have been so good” as the man who did get the job.
The butterfly effect would have made history different too for Neil Hamilton, the disgraced Tory MP whose Tatton seat Bell would take as an ‘anti-sleaze’, independent the following year. Bell has noted Hamilton’s sort-of return to frontline politics as interim leader of UKIP. “I try not to be ungracious about him. He doesn’t always reciprocate.”
Away from peacekeeping, Bell does indeed have something to say. He laments in his book the current state of TV news, writing that it is “no longer our window on the world”.
He tells me: “I think this is widely shared – not only among veterans like myself who were in almost at the beginning – but by some of the present practitioners, for a number of reasons. One is that it’s become too dangerous.”
Things changed, he says, after September 11. From that point on, journalists in global hotspots were “targeted, ransomed, kidnapped – and no-one’s ever told the story of what ransoms were paid, but I know they were. So it’s like kidnapping an ATM machine. At that point journalists say ‘bugger this for a style of living… I shall report from a rooftop’. Which is what they did.
“Also the news agenda changed. A lot of celebrity stuff. Even some of the broadsheets have celebrity columns. And what’s suffered is foreign news. There are very few foreign correspondents compared to what there were 30, 40 years ago.”
An entire chapter of his book is entitled ‘Remainer’s Lament’. It is a coruscating attack on Brexit and the politicians who have taken us there. He makes a case that the 1942 Battle of Singapore was a comparable disaster in British history and describes Brexit as “the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom as a major European power”.
“Well, I think we’re now talking about the end of the United Kingdom, period,” he says now. “I think in a new Scottish referendum the independence party could well win, and I think one of the effects of the governance of the last few years – the calling of the referendum, the failure to campaign well for the case for staying, the increasing fissiparousness of the four nations each going their own way in response to Covid – it is a time for some pessimism, actually.”
The UK, he says, has never had a government like the one it has now.
“I can never remember a challenge quite like this one. But I remember from my time in the House of Commons [1997–2001]… parliament was taken much more seriously, even by Tony Blair’s government. And he worked hard at PMQs, he spent a lot of time in the House of Commons.
“Now I fear we have a sidelining of parliament. The concentration of power in Downing Street, and especially in the hands of an unelected advisor in the shape of Dominic Cummings… I think these are concerns widely felt by MPs now, including the speaker Lindsay Hoyle.”
We talk in the immediate days after the government briefed it wanted former Telegraph editor and prominent BBC critic Charles Moore to take over the chairmanship of the Corporation, and before he ruled himself out. In a lovely irony, Bell campaigned for Moore’s father, Richard, a Liberal, in a by-election in Cambridgeshire in 1961 as both felt the Conservatives were “dragging their feet on our manifest destiny of joining the European Community”.
“I did, I did!,” he says. “His name was Richard Moore, he was a leading light in the then Liberal Party. I was a, what, 21-year-old undergraduate at Cambridge University. I toured the constituency in a minivan shouting slogans.”
Bell is rather less keen, though, on the idea of Richard’s son taking the helm at his long-time employer. “I think it would be inappropriate to have as the chairman of the BBC, which depends for its funding on the licence fee, somebody who has refused to pay his licence fee,” he says. Moore was fined £262 for not possessing a TV licence in 2010, after announcing he would refuse to get one, in a protest against the Corporation.
“Symbolically it would all be wrong. I expect the government to put in somebody they like, which is what Thatcher did. She put in Marmaduke Hussey, who got rid of Alasdair Milne.
“I expect Johnson to put in a Conservative-friendly figure. Which, in itself, is no harm, because the BBC must not be seen to be partial to one side of the political spectrum. So that’s going to happen, but I don’t think Charles Moore’s the right man.”
As Brexit negotiations stutter on, he reminds me he was the BBC’s man in Luxembourg the last time such talks occurred, when the UK was trying to agree a deal to join the European Community in the early 1970s. No footage of the successful 3am conclusion of those talks exists, though, “because the cameraman was blind drunk and incapable, but that’s how it was”.
He is also not sold on the government’s hiring of an official US-style spokesperson to front daily TV briefings, a job since awarded to Allegra Stratton. For whoever is appointed, it’s “a poisoned chalice… anyone who takes it on would be very brave indeed.
“But it’s another sign of the transfer of power from the House of Commons, which is supposed to be sovereign, to Downing Street and the concentration of power in the hands of Johnson, Gove and Cummings. And as an ex-MP who valued his time in the House I think this is dangerous.”
Bell remains attached to the sovereignty of parliament despite the fact that, as he writes in his book, his four years there were “the most disappointing of my life”.
“Well, it’s a bit like being a soldier [on national service], you see,” he explains. That’s only two years. It’s not something you enjoy doing, but it’s something you enjoy having done.
“And I think we did make a statement in ’97 in ousting Neil Hamilton – and I was just an instrument, I wasn’t the prime mover of it. There was a bit of a popular revolution, and I’m proud of that.
“But what disappointed me was when I got in the House of Commons was the power of the whips. I should have known that, but MPs of all parties were routinely voting for measures in which they didn’t believe. And I was the only unwhipped MP in the whole House. I was my own chief whip.”
The most dystopian chapter in his book is about Donald Trump. Bell is terrified for the US, where he was the BBC’s chief Washington correspondent from 1978 to 1989, and rejects comparisons, as some make, between Trump and Ronald Reagan, president for much of his time there. “Over the eight years of his presidency I developed a great respect for [Reagan],” he says.
“I think it’s widely seen to have been a very successful presidency, it was untainted by scandal – although, towards the end of his time he was losing it a bit and that’s how you got the Iran-Contra affair, but no personal scandal.”
The US, he warns now, is “coming to seem like one of the world’s failed states”.
“I was appalled when Trump was elected and I’ve been appalled as it’s gone on. And I’m really sorry for my successor but three, Jon Sopel, who’s a very good Washington correspondent, that Trump is so egregious that he can’t leave Washington.
“I was there for 12 years and I went to all states except for Alaska and Hawaii. I could travel, I could meet people. Jon is stuck in the Washington bubble and he gets to stay there.”
And as for Bell now? Has he really, as he began the conversation telling me, written his last book? Not quite. He lets slip he has actually spent lockdown writing what he describes as an update of Daniel Defoe’s 1722 work, A Journal of the Plague Year. Covering yet another war, albeit this time against a very different enemy.
War and Peacekeeping: Personal Reflections on Conflict and Lasting Peace is published by Oneworld, priced £20