David Blunkett's book is a first shot in his leadership campaignby Matthew D'Ancona / December 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
When David Blunkett announced in October that the possession of cannabis would no longer be an arrestable offence, it seemed that the long march of the 1960s had drawn to a triumphant end. Out of the blue, the project of social liberalisation launched by Roy Jenkins had apparently been completed by another Labour home secretary. Except, it quickly became clear, that wasn’t how Blunkett saw it at all. It is hard to imagine a less likely defender of the inhaling classes than this stiff-backed son of Sheffield. Jenkins had announced his reforms with the rubicund countenance of the genteel Cavalier; Blunkett’s latest reform was the grim-faced measure of a Roundhead too preoccupied waging war on the true enemies of society to worry about its libertine small fry. His reclassification of pot was not meant to be a principled concession to recreational drugtakers but rather a gruff statement of government priorities. The police would not be wasting their time on potheads any longer: they would be busy chasing criminals. This, in a sense, is the core philosophy of Politics and Progress: Renewing Democracy and Civil Society, the book which Blunkett has produced under the auspices of the think tank Demos. It envisages a state which performs only specific functions but performs them better. And it rejects both the postwar consensus and the new right while also avoiding “third way” platitudes. Only rarely does a cabinet minister produce such a broad-ranging account of his politics and the home secretary must have known that his book would be interpreted as the first shot in his leadership campaign. It would be strange indeed if Blunkett, a popular and senior cabinet minister, did not entertain some hope of succeeding Tony Blair as Labour leader. But-beyond its nakedly political objective-the book also attempts to establish the rudiments of a post-Blairite agenda. Unlike Blair, Blunkett has actually made the pilgrimage from the left to the social democratic centre which the Labour leader forced upon the rest of his party but never had to make himself. This means that Blunkett’s impatience with the “ideological inertia on the left,” its “specious” economic determinism and outmoded educational doctrine is even greater than his boss’s. This is a work of penitence as much as prescription. Blunkett is determined that he, and Labour, must never make the same mistakes again. At the same time, he wears his authentic Labour credentials on his chest. “Those of us who were brought up on council estates in conditions of relative poverty,” he says, “have a very different perspective from those whose own backgrounds bear little relationship to the people they believe they are helping.” So there. The governing themes in his book are a belief that the state can only do so much; that what it does, it must do better; that people need assets more than they need benefits; that welfare services must be decentralised (an undertaking which he acknowledges is fraught with risk); and that future social cohesion requires a new notion of citizenship, in which different cultures agree on core values and on behavioural norms. He is impatient with those who turn to the state for everything, not least those who expect a wage from the taxpayer for looking after their relatives’ children. “Drawing rational boundaries beyond which collective responsibility cannot stretch,” he writes, “has to be a prerequisite for a sensible dialogue about what, on behalf of us all, government can and should do.” Or to translate: if you think you are going to get another e50 a week out of the state by parking granny with the kids while you go out to work, think again. This is an important book for precisely the reasons that some people will dislike it. It has absolutely no Blairite sheen about it. The prose is unembellished and spartan, although the frame of reference-from Brecht to Bob Dylan-is impressive enough. Blunkett will never be trendy but it is clear that he wants to be seen as modern. He certainly grasps that “quality of life” is now the defining issue in political discourse and that the electorate supports public services only in so far as they deliver a more tolerable, pleasurable life. Unless these services improve, he concedes, the voters’ “support for continuing to fund them through taxation” will wither. He also grasps some of the requirements of making a multicultural society work. He sees a command of English as “critical for those entering the country for the first time,” and that a nation is entitled and obliged to “require new members to learn about its basic procedures and values.” In other respects, however, Blunkett has some way to go in his personal dialogue with modernity. The inspiration for the book, he says, was voter apathy and the low turnout at the last general election. Blunkett sees this as a terrible warning that the political class has become disconnected from the public. Yet another quite different interpretation is possible, one advanced in Michael Lewis’s recent book on the internet and new technology, The Future Just Happened. Lewis argues that opinion-gathering is now so compulsive a feature of political life that politicians are, if anything, too closely “in touch.” The public senses that its whims are being monitored at all times. “The more perfectly watched are the voters,” writes Lewis, “the less they have to pay attention to politics. After all, there’s no point in anyone but a revolutionary participating in a system of majority rule when the will of the majority is always, and automatically, known.” I suspect there is something in this. As we know from Philip Gould’s leaked memo last year, the political class is now so sensitive to headlines, polls, focus groups and one-off acts of protest like the fuel mutiny that it is constantly modifying its policies in the quest for what Dick Morris calls the “daily mandate.” Formal participatory politics-the activity that has been at the heart of Blunkett’s remarkable life-cease to be the focus of political action. People will, of course, make an effort when, as in 1997, they are desperate to eject one political tribe and install another. But most of the time they are content for politicians to respond to their enthusiasm and displeasure in other, more immediate ways. Against this backdrop, Blunkett’s faith in “the wider polis, which in ancient Greece lit more than just the Olympic flame” looks optimistic, to put it politely. Nor does Blunkett quite answer the most basic question he poses: what will be the true limits of the 21st-century state? In this, however, he is in good company-that is, with just about everybody else. Nobody has yet drawn a convincing map of what government will look like in the future, and Blunkett at least has the honesty to acknowledge the problem. While clinging to his belief in the ability of the political process to transform people’s lives, he admits to his own frustrations in making it do so, specifically conceding that he “probably underestimated the degree of challenge” as education secretary. Part of the problem, he claims, is that politicians “are held to account for everything as if governments are omnipotent.” Well, yes. But if that is the case, politicians have only themselves to blame, having continued to encourage this delusion with their grand plans and promises. One of the most worrying political developments of our times is the mismatch between public expectations of government’s capacity to deliver change and its actual ability to do so. In retrospect, the problem with the Dome was not that nobody went to see it, or that nobody liked it, but that the targets set for it by politicians were wildly inflated and the promises made to the punters-that their “socks would be knocked off”-absurdly ambitious. This is now being replicated on a much broader stage. We have seen in the past few years the rise of the self-confident, demanding citizen, who regards citizenship not as membership of the Athenian polis but as a form of consumerism. One has only to think of Sharron Storer, the woman who confronted the prime minister during the election campaign over the hospital treatment of her boyfriend, or the Maddocks couple who visited Downing Street to protest over their daughter’s bone marrow transplant. This generation has Thatcherite expectations and expresses them fearlessly. Its members, and not only the most affluent, are used to getting results, shopping around, value for money, customer service. It mystifies this generation that the public services they subsidise as taxpayers do not operate with the same responsiveness as the other services they pay for. In this, they look to the politician as an ombudsman: a man whose job it is to sort out problems and settle complaints. These expectations are nurtured rather than dampened by political rhetoric which promises revolution and renewal at every turn. The difficulty is that the British state as presently constituted is simply not capable of matching these demands, a suspicion which lurks not far beneath Blunkett’s confident prophecies. A system of health, education and welfare which still rests on essentially Butskellite foundations falters in the face of Thatcherite consumer impatience. Bevan and Beveridge are still with us. But their prescriptions-self-evidently-are no longer enough. What remains unclear is whether the electorate is ready to accept the implications of their own growing dissatisfaction. Most people grumble about the health service. But try telling them-say-that an insurance system of the kind used in Germany would work better. Public service reform is notoriously slow: the real mystery of the NHS Plan is that the prime minister appears to believe, for instance, that by 2005 patients will be able to book their hospital appointments on a date of their choice. Change of this sort takes decades, not years to achieve. So, unless Blair decides that he would like to remain prime minister for decades, not years, it will fall to another occupant of No 10 to complete the revolution that New Labour has only begun. Does Blunkett think that this person could be him? Well, of course he does. But that is not what makes Politics and Progress interesting. For all the questions the author leaves unanswered, he has at least asked many of the right ones. The real heresy of this book is its implicit premise that there will one day be a world without Blair. It is time to start thinking about that world.