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. But although the young Blunkett commands our sympathy, it should stop well short of Pollard-style canonisation. Tout comprendre is not tout pardonner. Many, perhaps most, of history’s monsters have had wounded souls. Blunkett’s has been the driver for inordinate ambition and self-destructive arrogance, combined with a strong dose of political cunning and a remarkable capacity for jettisoning inconvenient principles when the wind changes. The most unattractive single feature of New Labour is the ease with which former enragés from the student or municipal left of the 1980s have used it as their vehicle for personal advancement, without ever providing an intellectually respectable explanation for their change of front. (The endlessly repeated mantra that the Labour party had to be made “electable” will not do. It springs from an inverted version of the Marxist-Leninist assumption that the ends justify the means—an assumption that opens the road to the gulag.) Pollard tries to show that a thread of ideological consistency runs through Blunkett’s career, all the way from Bennite fellow traveller to Blairite fugleman, but this does not stand up. Blunkett was too canny to become a Derek Hatton, a Ken Livingstone or a Ted Knight. Under his leadership, Sheffield’s Labour council stopped short of the idiocies perpetrated in Liverpool, Lambeth and the GLC. But he was of the same ilk, and he rose to national prominence by being the acceptable face of municipal leftism. Yet within a couple of decades, he had become the most illiberal home secretary of modern times. Sentimental claptrap about Blunkett’s closeness to his roots, his empathy with his constituents and his abiding commitment to communitarian values cannot conceal that brute reality. He rose to power by flattering the far left. Now he flatters the authoritarian right. Yet there is a twisted consistency beneath that change—not of belief, but of attitude—which needs serious exploration. Linking Blunkett I, the insurgent municipal socialist, with Blunkett II, the macho authoritarian populist, is a resentful disdain for the mainstream social democratic tradition that lies—or at any rate, used to lie—at the heart of Labour’s heritage. Blunkett I did his best to undermine that tradition from the left; as home secretary and loyal Blairite Blunkett II has done his best to destroy it from the right. In his first incarnation, he and his allies helped to make the Labour party unelectable. Now he and a somewhat—but only somewhat—different set of allies are busily denuding it of the principles that made electing it worthwhile. In saying that, I do not want to imply that all was well with mainstream British social democracy. It was too centralist, too top-down and relied too heavily on social engineering by a beneficent state. Those of us who broke away from the Labour party in the early 1980s, in order to found a new social democratic party that would infuse the mainstream social democracy inherited from Clement Attlee and Hugh Gaitskell with the social liberalism of John Stuart Mill and LT Hobhouse, were right to do so, even though the results were disappointing. But with all its faults, there was a basic decency about mainstream social democracy—a decency of assumption and behaviour rather than of creed—which enabled it to function as the moral lodestar of the Labour movement. Apart from the occasional brave delaying action, it is now in headlong retreat. Anyone who doubts the scale of the retreat should carry out a brief thought experiment. In the 1960s, the combination of an unusually courageous Labour home secretary, in the shape of Roy Jenkins; a staid but moderately courageous home secretary, in the shape of Frank Soskice; a not particularly courageous, but fundamentally decent Labour prime minister, in the shape of Harold Wilson; and a Labour majority in the House of Commons procured the abolition of the death penalty, the end of corporal punishment in prisons, the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the legalisation of abortion, and legislated against racial discrimination. Now suppose that Blair and Blunkett had held the offices then held by Wilson, Soskice and Jenkins. Can anyone believe that such a government would have had the guts to stand out against the populists of those days, and lead opinion in the way that Soskice, Jenkins and Wilson led it? The thought experiment has another dimension as well. Forty years later, attitudes have changed so profoundly that it is hard to credit that Britain was once a country where homosexuality and abortion were crimes, where prisoners could be flogged, where the law had nothing to say about racial discrimination, and where murderers could be hanged by their necks until they were dead. But attitudes did not change of their own accord. They changed because social democratic politicians of 40 years ago were prepared to risk moving ahead of public opinion in pursuit of a civilised society. These politicians were, of course, elitists—the crime of crimes both for the municipal left among whom Blunkett cut his political teeth, and for the authoritarian populists whose prejudices he incarnated as home secretary. But civilisation is elitist too. All this is part of a more wide-ranging and melancholy story. The liberal values and institutions that Blunkett sneers at—the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the disinterested career civil service, willing to tell short-termist, headline-hungry politicians when they are wrong—were the sea walls of pluralist democracy, protecting it from a tide of self-devouring populism. Over the last 30 years or so, they have been steadily undermined or whittled away, sometimes in the name of the market, sometimes in the name of the people, and sometimes in the name of both. On the eve of a general election which looks like being a populist auction, the chief value of Pollard’s book is as a reminder that the people can be wrong as well as right.