Martin Bell: "We live in revolutionary times"
On 23 October 2000 I took part in the debate on the election of a new Speaker. I said “I beg to move, as an amendment to the Question, to leave out “Mr Michael J. Martin” and insert instead thereof “Mr Richard Shepherd”. (Mr Shepherd was and still is the Conservative MP for Aldridge-Brownhills.) I argued even then that our democracy was in crisis. It still is in crisis. The difference is that everyone now knows it.
I spent last week in Somalia for UNICEF. I returned to find the people up in arms against an out-of-touch and sometimes fraudulent political class. Our own pirates, I concluded, were not at sea. To be that sort of pirate requires a certain courage. No, our pirates operate on land. And the House of Commons has been their mother ship.
I knew that things were bad, but had no idea that they were that bad. Taxpayers’ money, for a bath plug, a chandelier, an ice cube tray or the cleaning of a moat? How could they have the nerve to think that they could get away with it? They lived in a world of their own. No wonder that its symbol was a portcullis.
It was the moat that did it for me. It showed that this was not a Labour Party scandal alone, but a case of cross-party corruption, brought on by an absurd and spurious sense of entitlement. If most of the publicity has centred on the Labour miscreants, that is because Labour has more MPs and is the party in power. The voters of Tatton will not need reminding that it was elected on a prmise to clean up politics. And yes, I had a marginal role in that enterprise.
But it never occurred to me, in my four years as your MP, to claim for household items. I bought my own bath plugs. No one told me about the John Lewis list. I worked out later that if I had pushed every allowance to the limit I could have made an extra £50,000 in those four years – tax free, of course.
We have reached a watershed moment in our democracy. I have never known a time when everyone was talking about politics. I have never known a time when the great disputes are not between parties and politicians, but between the political class on one side and the rest of us on the other.
I believe much good will come of it. We shall have a new Speaker. Parliamentary regulation will be taken out of the hands of the House and entrusted to an outside body. It may be easier for Independents to get elected.
I got off a bus the other day and a driver brought his car to a halt beside me. “You shouldn’t be on a bus,” he said, “you should be in Parliament!”. I am not sure about that, if only on grounds of age. I shall be 71 by the time of the next election. But my experience from 1997 to 2001 showed me that there is a role for the Independent at Westminster. I shall wait for the dust to settle, and see what steps the parties take to discipline their worst offenders, and who is left standing at the end of it. I expect de-selections, by-elections and resignations. The man with the moat has already decided not to test the voters’ patience any further.
We live in revolutionary times. The revolution will be peaceful, but it is coming. We cannot afford a future like our past.