NS Interview - David Blunkett
The Home Secretary says of his colleagues ''we sink or swim together'': none should presume on takin
David Blunkett has a lot to get off his chest. Almost before I sit down, he embarks on a critique of "what is wrong with the left in Europe": it does not understand, he says, the yearning for people "to have security and order around them". That need is greater now than ever. He frames the political debate around this. Gordon Brown is providing economic security. Jack Straw and Tony Blair are providing global security. The Home Secretary's task is to provide "security, confidence and freedom from fear domestically". He believes he has paid a price for this. "I'm seen as the great hard man, the anti-progressive, whereas what I'm doing is my job."
Blunkett is a politician who divides the nation like few others. Most recently, he has been attacked for talking of "nailing" a football fan deported from Portugal but released by UK magistrates, and for demanding the suspension of Humberside's chief constable, David Westwood, against the wishes of the local police authority and the parents of Holly Wells, one of the girls murdered in Soham by Ian Huntley.
Blunkett is unrepentant on both counts. The football fan, Gary Mann, was "a convicted individual, who had gone through a perfectly legitimate and respected court system". Giving his first interview since the furore surrounding Westwood, Blunkett says he was only using the "modest" powers that had just been introduced "to deal with precisely those circumstances. Had I not used the protocol, I would have been rightly criticised for indecision and ineffectiveness", given the strength of criticisms in Michael Bichard's report on the Huntley investigation. "I'm carrying out a process that only the Home Secretary has the authority to use."
His pinpointing of blame on to one individual has angered several police chiefs. The chief constable of North Wales, Richard Brunstrom, suggested that the attack on Westwood was a tactic to divert attention from the report's criticisms of the Home Office. Blunkett says the only area where his department was clearly culpable, the implementation of a central computer system, "would not in any way have affected the outcome of what happened with Ian Huntley, because the Humberside force did not collect, collate, retain or have a system of deletion to have allowed that system to be used". As for Brunstrom, Blunkett is scornful: "He has interesting views. For example, he is committed to the legalisation of hard drugs."
I ask Blunkett how he feels being likened in one newspaper to the judicial equivalent of a football hooligan. "Occasionally when I read things about me I have to walk up and down for a little while to reduce my blood pressure, because I'm just a normal feeling human being . . . There's a presumption that I shoot from the hip. I don't. I've not done megaphone politics."
What about the line that he felt like "cracking open a bottle" on hearing that Harold Shipman had committed suicide? "I was reflecting a moment in time," Blunkett says. "I wouldn't make that remark now, not because I didn't feel it, because I do . . .", but because he thought it was a private lunch. However, he realises "there's no such thing now as privacy in the political arena".
I ask Blunkett if being popular with the Daily Mail matters to him. "No, but being understood by Daily Mail readers does." And what of his fabled close relationship with its editor? It is not true, Blunkett says, that the pair meet twice a month. "God forbid that he has the time. I do meet Paul Dacre, probably about once a quarter."
The problem with the "liberal left", Blunkett says, is that it is frightened of his agenda. "There's been a history across the European continent of allowing the right to occupy the territory and to be seen to be the ones most concerned about law and order and overcoming people's fears. That's crazy. That creates a vacuum they were bound to fill, which we've stopped them from filling." He cites as examples the rise of the Nazis and Jean-Marie Le Pen in France. "It doesn't matter how often I say take a look at the Weimar republic and why it collapsed, and on a lesser scale take a look at what happened with [Lionel] Jospin and his [Socialist] government and the way they were handling law and order and immigration." When I interviewed Blunkett a year ago, he spoke of society being "like a coiled spring" over asylum-seekers. His unremittingly grim thesis has not changed. It is predicated on the assumption that voters are fearful and drawn towards the kinds of reassurance that previously only the right could provide.
Of his many actions, none has antagonised human rights organisations more than the provisions in the Terrorism Act 2000 that allow the state to detain foreign nationals on suspicion of terrorism, without trial and without charge. In the autumn, the law lords will determine the fate of the 12 people held at the high-security Belmarsh Prison. Blunkett insists they have been granted "fair legal process" and repeats his argument that they are "free" to leave the UK "if we can find a country that's prepared to take them". In the meantime, he has started a consultation exercise "to challenge people to come up with ideas as to how we deal with a whole panoply of terrorist threats".
He has not given up his hopes of lowering the burden of proof, but says this would apply only to lower categories of charges that would fall under civil rather than criminal law. Most of the cabinet appear ranged against such an idea. The Attorney General has spoken of "principles on which there can be no compromise". Blunkett claims there are no differences between him and Lord Goldsmith on this issue and on the continued incarcerations at Guantanamo Bay. He denies the many suggestions that he has connived with the Americans to keep Britons captive there. The "common endeavour" of the UK government had been either to ensure a fair trial under US law or to bring them home, he says. "I am entirely involved with government policy. I'm entirely in favour of the way it's being handled."
In the combustible political space Blunkett occupies, there is another dimension that can be overlooked. He has begun a series of speeches setting out his thinking from drugs to race, from community to "managed migration". "Would people be as willing to listen to me on community sentences if I wasn't tough on the most heinous criminals who they want locking away, quite rightly, in my view? Would they even hear the message on economic migration if I didn't have a tough line on clandestine entry?"
Blunkett describes his job as "challenging, invigorating, often very stressful, but it's worth doing". He likes it so much that he makes no secret of his desire to stay on. "It's important that inside the department, and with all the external agencies that I deal with, there's a presumption that I'm in this for continuity and that I'm not struggling to leave." He provides another reason, with a message attached for a certain colleague. "It's important that those of us who are privileged, because we are, to be at the very cutting edge of government, to be at the centre of events, don't presume that we should be immediately taking somebody else's job." And just in case Gordon Brown had not heard, he repeats the line later: "All of us who have the privilege of being in senior positions are playing an absolutely vital role in a collaborative effort, and I think all of us are proud to do so."
He describes his discussions with the Chancellor over the Comprehensive Spending Review as "perfectly amenable" - but they have led to the announcement being delayed until 12 July. Blunkett suggests that Brown should temper his ambitions. "I think Tony's never been more vital in his approach. His vitality has been evident to all of us. His determination to create, through the strategic plans and the manifesto, a radical reforming third term is undeniable, and all of us know that we sink or swim together."
So how much of a third term should Tony Blair serve? "I'd like the Prime Minister to remain as long as he feels he has the drive, the energy and leadership to do it, and I see no sign of those diminishing at all." After which Blunkett stands up, lets out a mischievous roar and declares: "Goodbye."