When David Blunkett boasted, characteristically, that he would make his predecessor as home secretary, Jack Straw, “look like a woolly liberal”, I doubt there were too many people who believed this was possible. Even Blunkett may not have been able to make ‘Mad Jack’, as he was known in the prison system, look like a liberal, but he is certainly the most right-wing home secretary this country has had in living memory, and he revelled in the fact. Straw may have been at least as Draconian as Michael Howard before him, but he didn’t have 9-11, an event, which if one were needed, gave Blunkett’s innate authoritarianism and xenophobia full-reign.
In the wake of Blunkett’s overdue resignation a picture is being painted, with himself as the primary artist, of ‘an honourable man brought low by love’. The career of this vain, arrogant, conceited individual was not brought to an end because of Blunkett’s private life, something he has done his utmost to deny the rest of us, but because he is a liar and corrupt, neither of which are new.
I first met David Blunkett in 1974, and later suffered under him when he was leader of Sheffield City Council, and neither his dishonesty, nor his corruption, nor his right-wing views are recently acquired. He’s simply been better in the past at hiding them. First and foremost though, David Blunkett has been a ruthless careerist, no wonder, like Margaret Thatcher before him, he’s blubbing now.
Thatcher was a great political ally to Blunkett in his Sheffield Council days, he could cover up the corruption and incompetence of his administration by blaming everything on central government: Northern Grit squaring up to Whitehall. Thatcher was of course despised in Sheffield, leaving the local Labour administration as secure as a one-party state, and they ran it accordingly. As Blunkett well knew, during this period, you could have put a red ribbon on a dog, and people would have voted for it.
In the 1980’s Sheffield City Council may have had a publicity machine worthy of Stalin’s Russia, but any talk of ‘socialism’ was never more than empty rhetoric for Blunkett and his pals. Look beyond the publicity and their track record shows that.
Under Blunkett, more than half of the council’s own 32,000 employees earned basic pay below TUC guidelines, and 10,000 of them were paid less than the Council of Europe ‘decency threshold’. Women workers got a particularly bad deal, earning far less than their male colleagues, and getting fewer promotions. There was also evidence of racial discrimination, with only 1% of council employees being black, a quarter of what it should have been, and rumours of a ‘colour bar’ in the Town Hall’s heavily subsidised restaurant, where no black person had ever been employed.
While lowly council workers got a raw deal there were plenty of jobs and high salaries for the Labour Party faithful. Irrespective of their true politics, careerists from all over the country flocked to Sheffield and joined up. Sheffield didn’t need freemasonry, we had the Labour Party. Usually the jobs doled out to the boys and girls were in social or youth work, Sheffield had more social-workers per head of population than any other place on the planet. In special cases though, a job would be invented, such as the creation of a highly-paid ‘Peace Officer’ role for one Blunkett crony.
Blunkett presided over a huge homeless problem in Sheffield, while massive numbers of council-owned properties lay empty for years, and sometimes for decades. Early in 1983 ‘Peace City’ was somewhat embarrassed to find that a group of young peaceniks had squatted one long-empty council-owned building and turned it into a ‘peace centre’. In response, Blunkett’s pal Roger Barton, then Chairman of the ‘Nuclear Free Zones Committee’, personally went round and cut off the electricity to the building. Blunkett however, faithfully promised the young pacifists that they would not be evicted, a promise he quickly broke.
Another embarrassment for the Blunkettgrad ‘Nuclear Free Zone’ was when a British Rail guard blew the whistle on the transportation of nuclear waste through the area, a fact the council had tried hard to keep quiet.
As homeless figures in the city continued to soar, other long-unused council-owned properties were occupied. The council’s response was always swift and ruthless. Facing immediate eviction one group of squatters wrote to Blunkett personally to ask for a stay of eviction while they found somewhere else to live. With typical arrogance Blunkett replied, “It would seem to me that anarchy can hardly expect reasoned and structured responses within the system which is being attacked.” After the eviction the building stayed empty for several more years.
Blunkett’s administration also waged a long and bitter war against travellers, even evicting them in the middle of a TB epidemic. The treatment of Sheffield travellers led to a perinatal mortality rate of nearly 50%.
Blunkett and his cohorts constantly railed in public about the corruption of Tory politicians in Whitehall, while Sheffield City Council junkets were legendary and almost every night the Town Hall hosted a lavish function or banquet for some group of councillors or another. Some friends of mine once went to visit Blunkett in his Town Hall office in 1983. Walking in unexpected they witnessed a huge feast laid out, this was Blunkett’s elevenses.
A big part of maintaining the illusion necessary to running Blunkettgrad was the notion of ‘squaring up to Thatcher’, so from time to time various ‘stands’ were made, with Blunkett & co promising to ‘stand firm’ against the Tories on various issues. Things were made easier by the fact that to a very large extent the Council ‘owned’ the unions, the tenants associations, the peace groups, and just about every political front, tendency, and organisation operating in the city.
One Blunkett ‘stand’ was over ‘rate-capping’, when Sheffield and several other Labour council’s refused to set ‘a Tory rate’. How Blunkett and his pals puffed and panted about this one, before crumbling at the very first opportunity. The discovery of the ‘Tory’ rate demands already typed-up and hidden in Blunkett’s office said a lot about his personal integrity. The inside word at the time was that Blunkett had been instructed to back down personally by Neil Kinnock, who was then waging a war against Militant Tendency, particularly in Liverpool where they controlled the anti-rate capping council. Blunkett’s promised reward was the advancement of his cherished political career. He was elected as MP for Brightside, one of the most solid Labour seats in the country, at the next General Election.
Another ‘stand’ was against bus-fare increases. The city’s famously low fares had actually begun to increase a few years earlier, but in 1986 Thatcher’s deregulation of public transport threatened to send them spiralling. After more hot-air Blunkett again capitulated, and as always he aimed to crush any uncontrolled dissent ruthlessly. As a member of a group opposed to the fare increases I was sent to prison for putting up a poster advising passengers not to pay. I wasn’t prosecuted by the police, I hadn’t committed a criminal offence, but by the Labour council, for not having planning permission.
As home secretary Blunkett’s abuses of human rights and civil liberties have been staggering. He has introduced internment without trial for suspected foreign terrorists, is introducing military camps for children, and barely a day goes by without him dreaming up another crackpot neo-fascist scheme to attack civil liberties, criminalize working-class communities, and put more and more people behind bars. Under Blunkett the British prison population has risen to more than 75,000. Held in appalling conditions, which Blunkett has consistently ignored, growing numbers of these prisoners are driven to suicide, slashing open their veins with slivers of glass or razor-blade, hanging themselves from heating pipes only inches above the floor, or choking on their own vomit through swallowing pills. Callously, Blunkett has refused to meet the mothers of some of the young women driven to these acts of desperation, while his only comment on prison suicides has been to quip that he was inclined to open a bottle of champagne after Harold Shipman killed himself.
Blunkett has long had a vicious tongue, and as his former cabinet colleagues have witnessed recently, he is not slow to use it. He once famously accused single mothers of deliberately getting pregnant to jump the council housing queue. There was no basis for this accusation whatsoever, but these were young working-class girls, who might need a helping hand, and perhaps a bit of advice on contraception. Not rich, already married, right-wingers who didn’t need his sleazy favours (and who might also now be reconsidering the issue of birth-control.)
David Blunkett sought to hide his corruption by playing the ‘my private life is my own’ card he is trying to deny the rest of us. The man who has consistently assured us, in relation to ID cards, that if ‘we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to worry about’ has come unstuck, and those familiar with his ‘computer-like’ mind are probably taking his recent bad memory with a pinch of salt.
Blunkett’s assistance with passport and visa applications on behalf of his rich former mistress sits hypocritically with the hard-line stance he has taken with those fleeing war and torture abroad. This is the man who told Kosovan and Afghani refugees to ‘get back home’.
And without wanting to twist the knife too much, his current fixation with acquiring a family, even if it’s somebody else’s, sits uneasily with his past history. The day after his election as an MP, Blunkett announced he was leaving his wife and children in Sheffield and moving in with his ‘research assistant’ in London. His marriage may as he has recently said been ‘a loveless relationship’, but he had hidden that fact for a long time, and he’s now finding out that middle-class women don’t disappear into the background quite so quickly or so conveniently.
Just like Thatcher before him, the only person David Blunkett is able to shed tears for is himself, snivelling that he doesn’t feel sorry for himself and that he’ll “try to have something of a Christmas.” Whatever happens to Blunkett, and unfortunately we may not have seen the last of him, he’s sure to have a better festive season than the families of the record 92 British prisoners who have killed themselves so far this year, those locked up without trial in prisons or detention centres, or the vast number of other victims of his reign as home secretary. Shed no tears for Blunkett, he can shed them himself.
16th December 2004