NS Interview - David Blunkett

Britain, says the Home Secretary, is now "like a coiled spring", febrile and tense, and ominously on

Pity anyone whose daily in-tray begins with terrorists making weapons in bedsits, continues with asylum-seekers being housed in hotels and ends with gangs on shooting sprees in city centres. David Blunkett is confronted with danger. But he has identified something worse - a danger coming from our minds.

"I am deeply worried. I am worried because genuine fears and concerns can so easily turn to a desire to find scapegoats."

It's hard to know which problem to begin with, when interviewing the Home Secretary. I ask him about the link people now make - and newspaper editors make in their name - between immigrants and terrorists, about residents talking of burning down a hotel in Sittingbourne if asylum-seekers are housed there.

"I'm worried about tension and frustration spilling over into the disintegration of community relations and social cohesion," he says. "I'm worried about people taking the law into their own hands."

Blunkett is taking on both sets of critics at once - from the left that he is riding roughshod over civil liberties, from the right that he is a soft touch on asylum; that as the Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said during Prime Minister's Questions, "the lunatics have taken over the asylum policy". The death of Detective Constable Stephen Oake in Manchester, as the police searched for a terrorist suspect who, it turned out, had been an asylum-seeker, has conflated the two issues. "I want the debate in the open, I want people's fears to be genuinely reflected, I want to be able to ensure they know the facts, and get the information on which they can make a judgement," he says. The government should be held to account. It should be open to suggestions from outside. If these suggestions are "feasible", he will take them on board; if they are not, "I ask people not to demand them, because I had a bellyful as others did 20 years ago when we were dealing with the Trotskyites within the Labour Party - their impossible demands with outrageous resolutions that they knew we couldn't match or respond to, followed by denunciation of failure. I don't want that in the new era, in terms of public policy."

It requires some chutzpah at a time like this to liken editors of the red tops to latter-day Trots. "I'm not going to have a go at any individual newspaper editor. I merely ask that they do not act in that way, and that they accept that we're all responsible for our actions and the subsequent outcome. It isn't criticism that I fear; it is criticism without solution." And just to rub in the point, he has a little swipe at certain commentators: "If I can bring trust and security into the system, we might be able to cool the debate where, bizarrely, people whose families survived only because they were able to flee to Britain are actually writing about how we should stop families fleeing to Britain."

He is equally dismissive of the "liberal left", who he believes are just as guilty of traducing his motives. "If you don't create a sense of order and stability, if people do not feel secure, then progressive politics is dead. That is a fact of history. The right has always emerged supreme when destabilisation and insecurity prevail. The liberal left have often misunderstood that, at their peril. My job is not to lose the sense of purpose or of the long term. I was the one who, this time last year, first said the party must take the BNP head on in the elections. That was denounced in some parts of the liberal left - vehemently." Blunkett regards the legislation on nationality and immigration and on anti-terrorism as "balanced".

My questions are littered with assumptions of a society ill at ease. At no point does Blunkett challenge the premise. Why are we, I wonder, so violent and angry? "We are as a society like a coiled spring. We are undoubtedly prepared to display that anger in different ways. People in some cultures do a lot of shouting, but let it out. We display much more anger from within." We talk about Britons' suspicion of the state, about the rights of the individual, delving into Rousseau, John Stuart Mill and Hobbes. "I did this at university. So I had the undoubted pleasure of reading Leviathan. These long-standing philosophical debates rest with us today."

His is a conspicuously unromantic view of British society, admittedly at a grim moment. That anger is exacerbated by a growing sense of fear. I ask Blunkett to assess the level of threat we face from terrorism. "It fluctuates. Understandably, in terms of public psyche, when there is an identification that is real enough for people to understand, then the tensions rise. But the overall threat level changes very little." Are we looking for needles in proverbial haystacks? He is careful not to pander to panic. "No, we are looking at extremely targeted approaches to specific evidence that emerges over a period of time. What is not fully recognised here is that similar raids, similar cells, similar identification of a potential threat is taking place in all the big European countries, particularly France, Germany and Spain."

At least the Brits are on the case now, much to the relief of foreign governments, especially the French, who - as the NS first revealed in early December - had been warning us throughout the 1990s of a potential threat from North Africans who had sought refuge in the UK. Blunkett says he has seen intelligence read-outs and believes none of his predecessors over the past decade - Labour or Conservative - was remiss in his responsibilities. "There is a dispute about how many warnings were given. We took seriously any specific evidence." Most of it was general, but he adds: "Such is the febrile nature of our society at the moment that people will look for scapegoats, and no one - the security services, the anti-terrorism branch, I suspect the Home Secretary - can avoid that."

After Oake's death, and the injuries suffered by officers with him, what about the routine arming of our police? The commissioner of the Met, Sir John Stevens, has said he reviews the issue each week. Blunkett is categorical in his opposition. "I'm in favour of a sensible development of response units and their deployment in any circumstance where there may be a risk to the officers themselves or the neighbourhood they're in. I'm not in favour of a blanket arming of the police. I do not believe that would help in terms of security or the tackling of gun crime and gang crime. We need to be targeted, we need to use intelligence-based policing."

I ask him about calls, again from the tabloids, for the government to deal with "the noisy clerics", notably Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Masri, the spiritual leader of the Finsbury Park Mosque, which was raided in the early hours of 20 January. Blunkett says he cannot talk about individuals, but suggests that people like Abu Hamza pose a lesser problem. "The bigmouths are dangerous and damaging to race relations, social cohesion and understanding, but it isn't the bigmouths who are the most dangerous. It's the ones you cannot see and you do not hear."

Is it a matter of time before the terrorists strike? "I hope not. I live with a job that has changed dramatically. Previously, home secretaries did obviously have the threat from Ireland hanging over them, but the nature of the threat and the indefinability of the opponent is materially different. It's just the nature of the job now. You can't give a 100 per cent guarantee. And if you're not actually thinking positively about your ability to stop these events, then you would sink into an inevitability of acceptance - and I don't think you can do that." I remind him that only a few hours earlier his boss had told MPs that it was "inevitable" that al-Qaeda would try to launch an attack. Blunkett hurriedly responds: "An attempted attack is clearly inevitable . . . I'm grateful to him for saying that."

Is war with Iraq similarly inevitable? Blunkett does not stray from the official line, but makes clear his concern at possible precipitate US action. "I wouldn't use the word inevitable. There is still a choice for the regime of Iraq. The longer this goes on, the less likely it is that they'll take the way out. But I believe there is a real will to maintain a maximum support for UN-endorsed action. [Blair], as he did in relation to Kosovo and as he did in relation to Afghanistan, has exercised influence way beyond the punching power of the UK."

Blunkett is fastidiously loyal to his boss. He has no reason not to be: he's the current favourite in the "Anyone But Gordon" stakes for the Blair succession. But, after years of tetchy relations, he is reported recently to have made up with the Chancellor. So I ask the former education secretary about the current much-publicised rows over tuition fees? "I've worked to unite, to find a common approach to a very big challenge about which I know more than most," he says tartly. And with an apparent piece of advice to the Chancellor, he adds: "In the end, we sink or swim by doing that."

I cannot resist one quick try at the leadership question. Is it true, now he and Gordon Brown are such friends, that he has agreed to stand down, in the event of a contest, in his favour? "I have never ever addressed the issue of the likelihood of a vacancy or who would stand for it. I am deeply committed to supporting and working alongside the Prime Minister - and, of course, the Chancellor."

For a man who has only just recuperated from an operation over Christmas, Blunkett is in resilient form. I ask him, on leaving, what with all this talk of death, destruction and disharmony, if he doesn't get a bit down? "There isn't a lot of fun and laughter around some of the challenges. If you have a sense of irony or humour, you're usually cut down as you're usually distorted or misinterpreted. So it does lead to us being slightly more dour and staid and predictable than would otherwise be the case, which I personally find quite frustrating - because if you don't laugh occasionally in my job, you cry most of the time."

Next Article