‘I am worried about the impact on the fabric of our society’: Martin Bell on the pandemic and a life observing conflict

Journalist Martin Bell. Picture: Harry Taylor

Journalist Martin Bell. Picture: Harry Taylor - Credit: Harry Taylor

“One of the lessons of history, surely, is that we don’t learn the lessons of history.”

If there was one man who had a front row seat to see lessons of recent history being taught real time, it is Martin Bell.

Two years as a soldier were followed by more than thirty as a correspondent for the BBC, taking in the Vietnam War, the Troubles and the Balkans conflicts in the 1990s. He described his latest book, War and Peacekeeping, as “a ramble throughout life”, which takes in those conflicts, his time as an MP and his experience as a UNICEF ambassador.

It was hastened by an accident at Gatwick Airport two years ago where he ended up having to have his face partially rebuilt.

“It was a near-death experience. I realised there’s a lot that I want to still write about while the good Lord spares me.”

Mr Bell said his experiences have shown that “as a general rule, force doesn’t work”.

He said: “It very seldom achieves the objectives you set for it, given our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

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He goes on to insist that diplomacy is still effective, despite the lack of success of engaging with China, Russia and Saudi Arabia in recent years.

“I think China rather wants to be in the family of nations. It doesn’t want to be a pariah state,” he said.

The former BBC correspondent was in the US in 1968, the year Martin Luther King was killed and people took to the streets in Paris, Prague and across the US. He sees there being a strong similarity between events 52-years ago and now, days before the US election.

“I’ve been thinking a lot recently about this. A phrase used at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 was ‘the whole world is watching’. Well it really is now. But I think people’s attitudes are changing. There’s a lot more sympathy with the minority groups in America compared to what there was, even with a mad president who is deeply absorbed and obsessed by looking at the early morning websites.

“There’s a chance America might come to its senses. That’s what we thought last time though.”

Having covered democracies and dictatorships, Mr Bell is critical of the UK government’s response to coronavirus. He said that he believes lockdown should have taken place 10 days earlier, and that the pandemic’s long term effect may be to drive people apart, rather than extend the scenes of togetherness seen in its early days.

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He was in parliament when the bills were passed to set up devolved assemblies across the UK, but fears that the attempt to “head off” the growing nationalism in Wales and Scotland will be undone by the government’s response to Covid-19.

“I am worried about the impact on the fabric of our society. I see civil disorder on the agenda again, I see civil disobedience. I thought initially it would bring us together and it did, but now it’s coming apart. I worry that Covid will facilitate the breakup of the United Kingdom. I love my country, all four parts of it, but it has given a platform for the SNP first minister and I can see why the Scots are getting restless.”

“In [Daniel] Defoe’s account of the plague in 1665, he said that people thought when it was all over, people would behave better towards each other. Nothing of the kind happened. The villains were more villainous and the vicious people were even more vicious.”

Of course, the big historic event that Mr Bell hasn’t had a front row seat for was the Covid-19 pandemic. As an 82-year-old, he has been shielding inside his Hampstead Garden Suburb home for much of this year. The furthest out he’s ventured has been to the Coffee Cup in Hampstead High Street, where he met the Ham&High. When we meet, he was worried about attending a literary festival in Petworth the following Friday, but said that he was long aware of his own mortality before the pandemic. He said he recognises the isolation felt by some during the pandemic, comparing it to that experienced by the residents of Sarajevo during the three-and-a-half year siege.

“I became aware of my frailties when I got wounded [in Bosnia] in 1992, because you tend to breeze along and think: ‘I’ll be fine.’” he said. “So it was then that I realised that we’ve got no defence at all. So I was much more careful, I always am, I judge my risk and calculate it more carefully.”

A prolific author since leaving the House of Commons in 2001, he has spent lockdown writing again, 57,000 words into his lockdown project of rewriting Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, about the Covid-19 pandemic.

He said: “There’s a remarkable similarity then as now. A plague comes from the east, we know nothing of it, we don’t know how to stop it. The difference then was there was no sanitation.

“It’s more serious than a war, except for possibly a world war. In that it’s mysterious. It is the invisible threat. We don’t seem to be up to it. I think we’re losing. I am full of trepidation for my country. Especially if one of the effects of this long-term or medium-term is to accelerate the break-up of the United Kingdom.”

Mr Bell has lived in Hampstead Garden Suburb since 1974, coming home from the sound of gunfire to be woken up by the lone owl in his oak tree outside. Yet some of his fondest memories are of Hampstead itself. A favourite spot is La Gaffe in Heath Street, where he once sought refuge after it was announced he was standing to become an MP in 1997. Encouragement to become Lord Bell of Redisham came to nothing after he stood down in 2001. Yet La Gaffe remains in his heart for another reason.

“The only party I ever crashed was Peter O’Toole’s wake there, and I was made very welcome.”