Richard Ingrams’s Week: Once you're stuck with a nickname, the game's over

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The Independent Online

Friends of Speaker Martin are putting it about that he has been a victim of the class war. The nickname Gorbals Mick, conferred on him by the Daily Mail sketch writer Quentin Letts, is, they say, proof of a conspiracy on the part of public-school types in the media to sneer at an honest working-class Scot.

In any case, Martin does not hail from the Gorbals, they say, and "Mick" is another nasty smear, reminding everyone that the speaker is a Roman Catholic. Not only are the critics public school, they are Church of England to boot.

All jolly unfair, in other words. But it's a forceful reminder to politicians and others that there can be nothing more damaging than to acquire an unflattering nickname. Martin's feeble protests remind me in particular of the late Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath. He was popularly known as the Grocer – a nickname we originally bestowed on him in the pages of Private Eye.

Like Martin, Heath was convinced that we were a group of snobby public schoolboys sneering at him because he went to a grammar school and spoke with a funny accent. His extreme touchiness on the point was proof of a debilitating petty-mindedness.

In fact the Grocer nickname had nothing whatever to do with class. It went back to the time in the early 1960s when Heath had been appointed by Harold Macmillan to negotiate a British entry into what was then the Common Market.

This involved him in complicated discussions over the future of fish or the price of imported meat from New Zealand. Hence the Grocer tag. But Heath wouldn't hear of it and was even angrier when, later, Mrs Thatcher was never once mocked for being a grocer's daughter.

The BBC is not the best preparation for life as an MP, Esther

Will there be a new Martin Bell to stand as an anti-sleaze candidate in a whiter-than-white suit? Mr Bell himself, at the age of 70, is reluctant to enter the political arena once more as the champion of decency and fair play.

To date, only my Oxford contemporary Esther Rantzen, left, has indicated that she might be prepared to throw her flowery hat into the ring and stand as an independent candidate in Luton in opposition to the sitting Labour MP, Margaret Moran. Esther told us she has been outraged by Ms Moran's claiming £22,500 to have her dry rot seen to.

It might be a risky business for the former queen of That's Life, as the BBC culture is not so far removed from that of Parliament and involves larger sums of money, which is provided by the taxpayer in the form of licence fees.

Any political opponent might feel tempted to investigate Esther's previous career at the BBC, and in particular the way in which she and her late husband, Desmond Wilcox, managed somehow to bypass the corporation's rule that husband and wife should not be allowed to work in the same department.

With a husband who was head of general features, Esther acquired a powerful position and even managed to arrange crèche facilities at TV Centre for her baby and her nanny. Esther and her show were frequently involved in litigation and the BBC footed the bills. Desmond Wilcox, too, had his legal expenses paid when a group of scriptwriters sued him for plagiarism. Esther was more recently featuring in adverts for ambulance-chasing lawyers. Now is that the sort of thing a would-be MP should be doing?

How to escape if you're recognised

It is hard even for honest God-fearing MPs to concede that they are not entitled to certain perks and privileges which are denied to the rest of us.

I was talking to an MP friend, one of those who has been named among the few Mr Cleans in the House, and while he deplored all the stories of free moat-cleaning and trouser presses, he still thought it right that MPs should be allowed free first-class travel on the train.

But why first class? The reason, he said, was that he liked to work on the train and that if he sat in the standard class carriages he was likely to be recognised by one of his constituents and engaged in conversation.

But this is a hazard not confined to MPs. Like my friend, I've always preferred to work or at least read on trains, but you are always at the mercy of bores.

In the days when I used to appear fairly regularly on the telly, I remember once being accosted at the beginning of my journey to London by a fellow traveller. "You're Richard Ingrams," he said excitedly. I looked him straight in the eye and said "No". For a moment or two he was nonplussed. Then he said: "It's a remarkable likeness." I felt a little ashamed but at least I was able to enjoy my journey in silence.

I am told that VS Naipaul was once button-holed by a stranger. "You're somebody famous aren't you?" he said. "Yes," said Naipaul. "I am Salman Rushdie."