Thursday, December 16, 2004

Blunkett's resignation

David Blunkett made an emotional farewell last night, having finally been brought down by the persistent stories concerning his affair with Kimberly Quinn and the related issue of her nanny's visa application.

Polly Toynbee, no fan of Blunkett's authoritarianism herself, is one of a number of liberal journalists who see Blunkett as a victim of a scheming socialite:

"So everyone wonders what on earth this working-class minister, driven by a genuine passion for social justice for those who came from backgrounds like his, was doing with a Spectator society lady? Sleeping with the enemy, he fell among the most frivolous rightwing effete scoundrels of the Westminster political scene. That is part of the tragedy in the downfall too - seduction of a simple man by someone from a world he rightly despised.

Then, the final coup de grace. What was he doing slagging off his colleagues one by one to rightwing Stephen Pollard, who should never have been his official biographer anyway? When such an astute and experienced politician makes an error like that, it begins to look as if his marbles are rattling around. Even his dog might have barked out a warning."

This, and the fact that Blunkett took the novel step of trying to prove paternity of a child born as a result of an affair, have created a level of sympathy that otherwise probably wouldn't be there for this most rightwing of Home Secretaries.

But at the risk of striking a sour note, his personal problems notwithstanding, his departure is entirely welcome to most people of a liberal disposition. He has been an extravagantly authoritarian Home Secretary, with the detention of terrorist suspects without trial in Belmarsh prison, the attempts to withdraw the right of appeal for asylum seekers and to limit jury trial, and the misconceived plan to introduce ID cards. Furthermore, prior to that he was education secretary and was responsible, in my view, for pushing the Blairite agenda in education - amounting to little more than the revival of the Thatcherite approach, which hitherto had showed some welcome signs of waning under the Major government.

That this would be considered a woolly liberalism of the "chattering classes" by Blunkett and his supporters was and is something that I've become increasingly annoyed with, not least because I have a wee bit of sympathy for the "tough on crime" argument: it is, for example, a perfectly valid point to make that the people who suffer most from crime are the working classes in the same way that they are also most likely to suffer from substandard education. It is not, however, valid to dismiss all criticism on the grounds that one is "taking the side of the criminal"; a distinction has to be made between the suspect and the criminal - and it is the function of the judicial system to determine whether the former is indeed the latter, a process hardly helped by undermining the rights of the accused.

I'm also not sure that Blunkett's demise can be attributed solely to a media feeding frenzy, driven by a prurient interest in aspects of his private life that are nobody's business. After all, the rightwing press, clearly recognising one of their own, were largely supportive of his war on British liberty. He had the support of the Prime Minister and probably, at first, a majority of his Parliamentary colleagues were sympathetic to his personal predicament. The key ingredient to his downfall, I would suggest, was the loss of support in the Labour Party. Many backbenchers were already alienated by his rightwingery - and his arrogant and stupid remarks to Stephen Pollard lost him even more support, not least in the Cabinet itself.

Among the wider implications are that Blair is, of course, damaged by this - having lost one of his key allies in the Cabinet. Another possibility is that in future it will become more difficult for ministers to claim "a big civil servant did it and ran away", which would be welcome. Charles Clarke, predictably, has already declared himself unwilling to rethink ID cards - but has, at least, adopted a more conciliatory tone than his pugnacious predecessor. Whether Blunkett's departure will have any implications for the proposed legislation on incitement to religious hatred remains to be seen. I plan to deal with this more fully in a future post but meanwhile, Lenin has made some interesting points on the subject here and here.

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