Martin Bell, Mark Thomas and Annie Lennox set for Festival of Politics

  • Edinburgh Festival Guide
  • 16 July 2010

This article is from 2010

Martin Bell, Mark Thomas and Annie Lennox set for Festival of Politics

Power of the People event examines political process

Martin Bell worked stoically for years as a war correspondent before becoming the UK’s most popular independent MP. Miles Fielder talks to the white-suited man about taking politics away from the politicians

Were you depressed by the outcome of the general election? The Conservatives back in power despite being all but annihilated in Scotland. Labour collapsed despite being endorsed north of the border. The Lib Dems putting Cameron in Downing Street. The public certainly wasn’t apathetic on May 6, but by refusing to endorse a clear majority for any of the parties it obviously wasn’t impressed with any of the colours on the political spectrum. Unsurprisingly, then, feelings are mixed about the new coalition government and its ability to steer the country through harsh economic times.

But don’t be too down-in-the-mouth. An event at the Festival of Politics suggests all is not lost. Arguing that those of us who are not professional politicians can nevertheless affect the political landscape, Power of the People aims to temper our understandable pessimism with cautious optimism. Among those guest speakers from the non-party political sphere in attendance will be Martin Bell, the septuagenarian from Suffolk who was appointed an OBE for a lifetime’s work as a war reporter – broadcasting from Vietnam, Nigeria, Angola, Bosnia, Northern Ireland and the Middle East – and who stood as an independent MP for the formerly Tory constituency of Tatton, secured the seat and sat in parliament during Tony Blair’s first term. Bell, who is currently a British UNICEF ambassador, thinks the people of Britain do have access to considerable political power.

‘For a start, we’re all voters. A number of people who had extremely questionable expenses claims were voted out of office at the general election. One of the things that the events of last year taught us is that it’s really our parliament not theirs. So we’ve begun the slow process of recuperating it for ourselves. Then there are lobbying groups for everything from trade associations to charities and there is local government as well. What’s worried me in recent years is the growing gap between the political class and the rest of us. But I think the interest that people took in the general election campaign and its result suggests that the gap is beginning to be closed.’

In fact, Bell sees the outcome of the general election as quite positive. ‘Our politicians are on probation,’ he says. ‘No single party for the first time in my lifetime – and I’m quite an old bloke – emerged with an absolute majority. This is forcing our politicians to work together, maybe to moderate some of their extreme positions. I think we must not expect too much of our government. It’s not building or offering a new Jerusalem. It’s taking office in extraordinarily difficult times and while it may disappoint us, it should not betray us. I think it’s a time of modest hope.’

In Bell’s view, the election continued to show up the deficiencies of the British voting system and put to bed the old argument of first-past-the-post always delivering a definite result. ‘It didn’t on this occasion because it was designed for a two-party world. Now, we have three parties in England, four parties in Wales and Scotland, and I think if we had another election held in, say, six months’ time, a year’s time, we would deliver another inconclusive result.’

Bell also believes that parliament compromised itself by yielding much of its powers to an all-powerful executive. ‘We don’t actually elect a government,’ he says, ‘we elect members of parliament. Those members of parliament have to defend their privileges to represent us against abuses of power. Those abuses used to come from the crown; in the Tony Blair years, and before that, they came from Downing Street. So, this is a time for politicians to not again allow themselves to be railroaded by the executive, such as going into a war that the people oppose, and it is a time for extreme vigilance on the part of the people.’

Bell will be addressing all of the above during his appearance at the Festival of Politics alongside Annie Lennox and Mark Thomas. ‘I’ll be talking about neutralist politics and the new political landscape and I’ll probably have something to say about Scotland as well.’

Power of the People, Scottish Parliament, Holyrood Road, 0131 473 2000, 18 Aug, 1pm, £6 (£3.50). Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888, 18 Aug, 6.30pm, £10 (£8).

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