Tatton's unique and cruel choice

If Mr Hamilton loses, he will be ruined. If Martin Bell wins, he will enjoy a most unusual kind of freedom
Click to follow
The Independent Online
In standing for Parliament in Tatton against Neil Hamilton, the Tory MP fighting allegations of corruption, Martin Bell, the white knight in the white suit, former TV war reporter, has two tasks to accomplish. First he has to win. But if he does, he will then have to create from scratch the entire notion of being an independent Member. The species vanished from Westminster with the abolition of the Oxford and Cambridge university seats soon after the war.

In the election itself, Mr Bell has some difficulties to overcome. Mr Hamilton states in his election address: "All I ask is the right to be regarded as innocent unless proven guilty." This is always a powerful appeal. It has the resonance of a venerable principle of law. It speaks to people's sense of fair play. However, Conservative supporters, in financing the distribution of a long interview which Mr Hamilton did with the local paper, the Knutsford Guardian, to 36,000 homes in the constituency, appear inadvertently to have weakened the force of the plea.

For in the article, which Mr Hamilton has marked as copyright, every allegation, in the smallest detail, is raised - and answered, generally with a denial, to the candidate's satisfaction. Moreover, those electors who did not receive the off-print may well have seen the original piece in the newspaper. And some others will have read elements of Mr Hamilton's evidence to the parliamentary inquiry, which The Sunday Telegraph recently carried. In sum, therefore, the electors of Tatton have been put into a position to make up their minds about their candidate's likely guilt or innocence. On Thursday a rough and ready justice will be done.

A second problem is found in the opposite direction. Quite a number of Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters resent their candidates' having stood down in favour of Mr Bell. As one woman asked in the local newspaper: "Why do we need Martin Bell to stand as an independent candidate? Are the Labour and Liberal parties corrupt?" And she added: "It does not bode well for the future of Britain that both these parties felt that their candidate could not stand up to Neil Hamilton." Her feelings are understandable. But it would probably need tactical voting on a massive and unprecedented scale to unseat the incumbent. There is also a bit of irritation at the way Mr Bell was, so to speak, parachuted into the constituency at the last moment. And there is resentment that national newspapers and television appear to be telling Tatton electors that this is what they should do and this is whom they should choose.

However, Mr Bell is able to benefit from a deeper and more persistent resentment, evident in Tatton and across the country: disillusion with the system itself. He has found that the demand for clean politics shades into a desire for looser party structures. While the national turn-out in the general election may be down by some percentage points, this is unlikely to be the case in Tatton.

There, for every Labour or Liberal Democrat supporter who feels disenfranchised by the absence of their candidate, one can find many more, especially the young, who are keen to vote for some kind of fresh start at Westminster. On the streets of the constituency, as I walked with Mr Bell, a passing motorist wound down her window to wish him the best of luck. Non-Tory voters, rather than despairingly contemplating the sheer size of Mr Hamilton's majority, the fourth safest Conservative constituency in the country, at last feel their votes will count for something. For Mr Bell puts first the concept of trust and honour. "I am standing primarily on the issue of trust," he writes in his election address.

Against such an opponent Mr Hamilton is plainly at a loss. He has had a few public meetings and tried some sporadic canvassing; but other than that he is scarcely seen in the constituency. The relentless attention of the media has had a dire effect. He has described what it has done to the health and morale of him and his wife: "There have been many tears and much emotional distress ... you really cannot understand what it is like ... to wake up in the morning dreading to see the front pages or to turn on the radio ... to go to bed at night with fear gripping your stomach." So he finds himself fighting a general election with the least appropriate of weapons: solicitors' letters and legal threats.

Mr Hamilton may well lose on Thursday; the local opinion polls indicate as much. In which case the tragedy of his political career, the centre of his life since he was at university in Wales in the late Sixties, will have come close to its final stages. He was forced to resign as a minister in 1994; he will have thrown away a safe seat; he will not find it easy to re-establish his career as a tax barrister; he appears to have few financial reserves; he will still have to await the findings of Sir Gordon Downey on the question of whether he had been paid to ask questions in Parliament. If the finding is adverse, he will be comprehensively ruined. At 48, the career of the brilliant, ambitious, hard-working son of a modest family (both his grandfathers were coal-miners in South Wales, and his father was a mining engineer) will have ended.

Martin Bell, on the other hand, if he were to win, would confront one of the most interesting challenges in public life - how to be an independent MP in a party of one, yourself, and not be ground into insignificance by the big machines. Even the shape of the chamber of the House of Commons is hostile to such a venture; the two main parties aggressively face each other, rather than sit in a semicircle. At least Mr Bell could engage in meaningful discussion with his constituents on the big issues of the day. He could ask them what they thought, rather than having to explain an existing line. He would address the House of Commons with unusual authority and his constituents would feel that they were really participating. What an unusual thing!