Prominent Conservative, businessman and copywriter

Born: October 5, 1946;

Died, September 27, 2015

Arthur J Bell, who has died aged 68, was a staunch and influential Conservative and Unionist when Margaret Thatcher was in her pomp, although he was never happier than when pricking the balloons of those in power or who were part of the Establishment. That he was a maverick and unconventional was apparent to everyone who knew him. Quick witted and incorrigibly mischievous, he delighted in debunking stereotypes and had an unerring gift for garnering publicity.

With his wife Susan, whom he met in the Young Conservatives while studying politics and economics at Edinburgh University, he threw himself into the political maelstrom, spearheaded many campaigns and stood for parliament, unsuccessfully, on a number of occasions. When still a student he stood, unsuccessfully, for Edinburgh Council. His agent was Malcolm Rifkind. Both Bells were National Vice Chairmen of the Scottish Young Conservatives in 1969. Their aim was to shake up the Scottish Conservatives and they regarded anyone over the age of 50 as a "fuddy-duddy". Later, though, in the 1980s and '90s, their sworn enemy was the so-called New Right, led by Michael Forsyth – an alumnus of St Andrews – and his fellow travellers, who were zealous Thatcherites.

In his book, The Hollow Drum, Arnold Kemp, erstwhile editor of this newspaper, wrote that Bell's antipathy to the New Right had its roots in student politics in the 1960s. For him, moreover, there were similarities between the battle that raged between the respective camps of Forsyth and Rifkind and his father's scarring experience in the Church of Scotland, of whose in-house magazine, Life and Work, he was editor.

On Christmas Eve, 1970, Leonard Bell was in the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh, having suffered a heart attack that was brought on, his son always maintained, because he was sacked by the Kirk. He was informed of this in a letter from the publicity and publications committee which did not explain why his appointment had been terminated. But it was widely believed it was because he had published on the magazine's cover a reproduction of Botticelli's Madonna and Child which had recently been acquired by the National Gallery. This was regarded by the Kirk's panjandrums as papist and therefore unforgivable. As Kemp wrote: "The flames of the Reformation, and its rejection of Mariolatry and the worship of graven images, still burned in their hearts."

The loss of his job also meant that Leonard Bell would have to give up his house. Though he appealed and took his case to the General Assembly, whose commissioners voted overwhelmingly to reinstate him, he was profoundly affected by the debacle and the toll it took on his health was disastrous. Within a year he was dead.

It was this event that motivated Arthur and governed his attitude to authority. It also taught him how to campaign which he invariably did with humour and single-mindedness. He was always eager to get stuck into any issue where he thought injustice or overbearing authority were denying individual rights, whether it was the battle the Errington cheesemakers fought with environmental health officers, the building of a super quarry in the neighbourhood of the World Heritage Site at New Lanark or Michael Forsyth's attempts to get rid of "old faithfuls" from Tory HQ simply because he did not share their vision of Conservatism. For Bell, the latter was tantamount to persecution.

"He [Forsyth] started doing to friends of mine what a small clique in the Church of Scotland had done to my father. I thought, What are these people going to do? They were suddenly kicked out of a job in front of television cameras which just happened to be called along."

Arthur Bell was born in Brechin, where his father had a parish, the year after the end of the Second World War. Graeme Murdoch, a lifelong friend, recalled their first meeting up a horse chestnut tree which was in the grounds of the Angus town's Gardner Memorial church. "Arthur had climbed up on God's side and I had clambered up on a bough overhanging the godless side of my grandfather's pub garden. We have been friends in laughter ever since."

At university, Bell was co-author of a good beer guide to Edinburgh pubs which he researched assiduously. In 1973, in New Lanark, the Bells set up the company Scottish Direct with the aim of selling high quality crafts and art. Some years later they moved with their entire staff to a disused tweed mill in Biggar where they started Scottish Gourmet, which was in the vanguard of selling superior local produce by mail order. Its strength lay in its computerised data base which held the names and addresses of more than 200,000 customers. It was one of several such innovative ventures established over the years by the enterprising Bells who combined hard graft with business acumen and irreverent wit.

One such was The Whisky Connoisseur which produced Scottish Gourmet Whisky, a blend of four malts. When Guinness, the Irish brewing behemoth, took over Arthur Bell & Sons of Perth, it attempted to halt production of Scottish Gourmet Whisky, pointing out that the label on it, like that on one of its own bestselling whiskies – Bell's – contained similar signatures. The case went to the Court of Session where a media scrum duly assembled. "Is this a David and Goliath battle, Arthur?" asked one journalist. "Yes," replied Bell, "and you'll remember who got stoned." A slew of punning headlines – "Bell in Ding-Dong Battle" etc – ensued. In due course the judge decided that, while Bell's signature may have been provocative and should be reduced in size, he had "an inalienable right to trade under his own name".

In 1993, the Bells diversified and started selling ceramic babies. In seven months, the Hush-A-Bye-Babies series earned more than a million pounds. Another unlikely line was thimbles. The Bells created the Thimble Collectors' Guild, which claimed 20,000 members and included a thimble museum which was located in Biggar. In its present incarnation, the Thimble Guild, it is currently based in Cumbria. One Australian thimble-maker sent 5000 kangaroo-hide thimbles, which, in lieu of an import licence covering endangered species, were impounded by Customs and Excise. Unfortunately, the marketing of these curios coincided with a television exposé Down Under about the brutal way kangaroos were being slaughtered. "We suffered floods of abuse," recalled Arthur. "I was called an evil swine. Some guild members resigned. In the end we sold 50."

Among the many callers at Scottish Direct's HQ was Margaret Thatcher who, with her husband Denis arrived, six months after the Brighton bombing in 1984. Bell introduced her to Stewart, a disabled member of staff whose job was to supervise an envelope-stuffing machine. "And what do you do on this machine?" the prime minister asked. "Dinnae ken, missus," replied Stewart in broadest Biggar brogue. "Dinnae f***in' ken." On leaving the premises Thatcher said: "You sell some very beautiful things, Mr Bell." "That's kind of you prime minister," he replied, "but I sell some pretty hideous things too."

In 1999 Bell had a heart by-pass operation at Glasgow Royal Infirmary which went terribly wrong. As a result he lost his left leg and was paraplegic. By then, he and Susan had sold their business which had 80 employees in Biggar and planned to spend several months a year in their house in Languedoc, France, where Arthur fell ill earlier this year.

He had long grown weary of the Tory Party's attitude toward devolution and the European Union and had joined the Liberal Democrats, voting No last September in the independence referendum. For a decade he was chairman of New Lanark Trust.

Other interests included rugby and cricket. His last days were spent in Kello Hospital in Biggar where he refused further surgical intervention and directed visitors to the window ledge on which stood a bottle of Talisker.

He is survived by Susan, their four children and six grandchildren.