On a Clear Day
David Blunkett Michael O'Mara Books, 256pp, £17.99
This updated edition of David Blunkett's memoirs is really two books, crudely bolted together. This is because there are two David Blunketts. One is the man, blind from birth, from a working-class Sheffield family, whose much-loved father was killed in a horrific workplace accident, forcing David's widowed mother into poverty. This is the man who wrote most of the first three quarters of this book, and it is impossible not to like and admire him.
This David Blunkett is a man of huge courage and self-discipline, and a powerful intellect. As if coping with a university course even though blind were not enough, the Sheffield undergraduate got himself elected a local councillor, and in the evenings, when his fellow students were out enjoying themselves, he would tramp between meetings, surgeries and his mother's terraced home, where he could pore over still more Braille. He knows he has to work twice as hard as a sighted person, and be twice as good. He is a man of fierce loyalty, and not just to people: he has learned to love, respect and care for his guide dogs.
He does not theorise about poverty, or low expectations, or discrimination against those with disabilities. He doesn't need to. "My mother, at one stage, only had bread and dripping for us to eat," he writes. "There is nothing even faintly romantic about being poor and hungry."
This David Blunkett writes about his hard life without a trace of mawkishness or self-pity. He laughs at himself, and invites us to laugh at him, too. There's the time when he came to London with other politics undergraduates for a meeting with the then trade and industry secretary, Peter Walker. There was a loud snore, and the minister stopped speaking mid-sentence. It was David's guide dog.
Years later, as education secretary, visiting a school classroom full of infants, he sat on one of those tiny child's chairs. His knees level with his chin, he put his arm around the occupant of the next chair and, in what he calls "my most soothing politician's voice", he asked: "And how old are you, my dear?" "Twenty-three," replied the startled nursery nurse.
That's one David Blunkett. The other seems to emerge around the mid-1990s, and is responsible for most of the last quarter of the book. He is cynical, self-righteous, self-serving, arrogant and reactionary. Because the book is not a conventional political memoir, when it does venture into policy, it does so in the "I thought education was important, unlike those who opposed me" style. Never explain, never justify, never apologise: just sum everything up in a simplistic sentence, so the reader knows at once that only a fool or a rogue can possibly oppose you.
The creation of new Labour turns out to have been "the time when we were trying to update the party's values". Between then and the party's 1997 election victory, Blunkett was busy making Labour's education policy as like that of the Conservatives as possible. At the 1995 Labour Party conference, he said: "Watch my lips: no selection, either by examination or interview, under a Labour government." But it was, apparently, a slip of the tongue. What he meant to say was "no further selection by examination or interview". Whoops.
His determination to keep selection - to ensure that Britain's 165 grammar schools kept the right to select by examination at the age of 11 - leads to the single simple sentence in this book for which I cannot forgive him. Knowing that it was political dynamite in the Labour Party, he got his way by creating a system of parental ballots which was ruthlessly rigged to ensure the result he wanted. Had Saddam Hussein invented such a system, Jack Straw would now be listing it as one of the reasons justifying a war on Iraq.
Blunkett knows what he did, and why. In this book, he sneers gently at those who tried, and inevitably failed, to make the system he created work. "The issue proved rather less explosive than was expected at the time," he writes contentedly, "with just one ballot being called in Ripon, where parents decided to remain with the status quo."
The book ends soon after he ceased to be a reactionary education secretary and became the reactionary Home Secretary. But it leaves behind the question: how can the two David Blunketts occupy the same skin?
The most charitable explanation may be the right one. He went into politics to create a better and fairer society. Each day of his life, he has worked and studied and thought, strained every sinew of his extraordinarily efficient brain. When you have lived your life like that, and reached the cabinet against extraordinary odds, you might forget the reason you embarked on that life in the first place. And if the Prime Minister who holds your career in his hands is reactionary, might not career-destroying defiance seem to make a mockery of all your struggles?