Politicians of the left once led public opinion. A hagiography of David Blunkett shows how today's "authoritarian populists" now just follow itby David Marquand / March 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
David Blunkett by Stephen Pollard
(Hodder & Stoughton, £20)
At first sight, Stephen Pollard’s biography of David Blunkett is a workmanlike, though cliché-ridden, example of a genre to which publishers are increasingly addicted—the journalistic instant biography that provokes a brief stir of publicity for a moment or two, and then sinks beneath the waves. But on closer inspection, it has a more enduring significance, both for British politics in general and for British social democracy in particular.
It is significant in an odd, roundabout way. Pollard is a hagiographer rather than a biographer. He is heavily biased in Blunkett’s favour and against Blunkett’s rivals and the manifold objects of the politician’s scorn. He has no sympathy for the unfortunate civil servants for whom Blunkett evidently nurses a resentful contempt. The judges who have tried to uphold the basic principles of the rule of law in the face of Blunkett’s disdain for them are as obnoxious to him as they are to Blunkett himself. Rivals and critics, including Helena Kennedy, Anthony Howard, Derry Irvine, Roy Hattersley and Jack Straw, emerge from his account as scheming, envious or “liberal” enemies of the people. The notion that they might have sincere reasons for opposing the former home secretary, that they might see him as a danger to civil liberty, to social democracy, or simply to good government is not considered.
But in spite of his hagiographic devotion, Pollard has shone a vivid spotlight on the seamy side of Blunkett’s politics and, more importantly, on the seamy side of the Blair government and the degeneration of the New Labour project. The Blunkett that emerges from these pages is a disturbing and unlovely figure—a strange amalgam of the heavy-handed sub-Stalinism of old Labour, the rootless sub-Thatcherism of New Labour and the posturing sub-Trotskyism of the municipal left of the 1980s, all laced with a loudmouthed, self-satisfied swagger. Of course, the swaggering surface conceals a wounded soul, and in his early chapters Pollard rises briefly above the limitations of his genre to make it clear how deep the wounds must have been. Blindness was only part of the story. Far worse was the cruel insistence of his local authority that Blunkett should be packed off to a boarding school for the blind at the age of four, and then the trauma of his father’s terrible death after falling into a giant vat of boiling water in the factory where he worked.