The New Statesman Interview - David Blunkett

<em>Labour Conference 2001</em> - Let liberals howl and traitors flinch, the Home Secretary is in gr

I met David Blunkett the day the government announced a number of measures - probably to include ID cards - to deal with the terrorist threat. Not surprisingly, the liberal left is deeply suspicious, and there is much talk of the government eroding the very democratic values that it seeks to defend.

It is this Home Secretary's first major confrontation with the libertarian wing of the Labour Party - and he is grimly uncompromising. Clearly those who wring their hands at the thought of ID cards or harsher extradition policies will get not a shred of sympathy from him. They are, he believes, the moral equivalent of those in the 1930s who allowed the Nazis to triumph in Europe. "I'm a great aficionado of history," he says. "I was deeply affected by seeing the disintegration of any chance of democracy coping with fascism in the Weimar republic, where woolly-minded, well-meaning liberalism actually allowed the forces of darkness to use democracy, to exploit democracy, to overturn democracy."

Are we in a similar situation today? "Potentially so. I'm very mindful of not exaggerating the position, but I think we have to take measures that in no way undermine the rights of individuals living in this country but don't allow those rights to be exploited to the point where they are used against us."

This is the hard message that Labour's truncated party conference will hear from one of the government's hard men. Civil libertarian dissenters can expect short shrift in Brighton. Blunkett insists that the government hasn't made a final decision about ID cards. But he confirms that an examination of how to fund such a system, and the practicalities of implementing it, is "currently in train".

To those - from the Tory right to the libertarian left - who have grave concerns about the idea, Blunkett insists: "There's no removal of basic rights and freedoms; there's no police state in other European countries that have ID cards."

Blunkett, as well as other cabinet ministers, isn't playing down the threat of further attacks, including germ warfare. I ask whether we are, or can be, protected adequately against such assaults, and he replies, honestly, that "the government can only do so much".

He raises the subject of gas masks, saying: "My belief, at this moment in time, is that things like issuing gas masks would not be helpful." However, Blunkett adds that, in the weeks ahead, he will review all possible security measures.

His scorn for "woolly-minded, well-meaning liberalism" extends to those peaceniks who want the United States and its grand coalition to refrain from military retaliation. They are refusing to face up to reality, he believes. "It's no good hiding our head in the sand . . . on the next occasion they [the terrorists] feel they want to shake the world up and things aren't precisely as they would wish them to be, they will strike against us at any time, in any place. Then people would say somebody should do something." But, he snorts, "they don't like the something and they don't like the somebodies and they pretend it's nothing to do with them".

These are strong words indeed from a politician who, unlike his predecessor, Jack Straw, or the Prime Minister, was a left-wing figure until comparatively late in the Labour Party's modernisation process. Blunkett began his political career as a practically minded but famously leftish leader of Sheffield Council who became a national figure in the fight against spending cuts, and then against Militant. No one in the upper ranks of this government had an upbringing as tough as his, partly because of his long and, at times, lonely struggle with blindness, partly because of the dire poverty into which he was born.

Blunkett is an emotional, sensitive man who, according to a close friend of his, decided only in the past six months that he could be a major player and has gone about seeking such a role with a determination that has characterised much of his life.

Before he was confirmed as Home Secretary following the general election in June, speculation was rife that Blunkett was going to the Home Office, and he was reported as saying that he would make Straw look like a wet liberal. I asked him whether that was true. "No, I never did say it," he replies. Blunkett claims his early Home Office record shows that he wants to "judge each issue on its merits, to be very balanced, but not to suffer fools gladly".

Our meeting was arranged initially because Blunkett has written a soon-to-be-published book, entitled Politics and Progress, which sets out his distinctive political creed. Publishing anything with a whiff of political philosophy might seem like a destabilising act to this most controlled of governments, but Blunkett insists Blair is "very pleased" and urged him to go ahead with its publication despite the international crisis.

In the book, Blunkett claims that Labour has come through its dark days when "there was a fear that ideas themselves were frightening" and no one wanted to rock the boat. He believes in the need to debate Labour's values, and hopes people can debate or disagree "sensibly, calmly and, to use an old- fashioned word, fraternally - or whatever the non-gender implications of that might be".

Blunkett is preoccupied with the notion of citizenship: the idea that being a member of society entails rights and duties as well as privileges. He looks back with enthusiasm to the friendly societies and mutual organisations of the Victorian working class and claims that his Sheffield constituents have "a hunger to do something to help themselves and their families, but also their communities".

He says that the role of government "is certainly not to be the answer to everyone's prayers, the deliverer of a particular checklist of measures". The idea of the state as enabler rather than provider has echoes of Thatcherism, but Blunkett insists that it's very different: "We will be saying to people: We're here, we're not leaving you to it, this is not 'on your bike', but we're here to be the foundations of you being able to use whatever talent, whatever skill, whatever capacity you have to do it, because otherwise we create, rather than reduce, dependency."

This sounds remarkably similar to the views of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown - allegedly Blunkett's rival in the longer-term struggle for leadership of the party when Blair calls it a day. Blunkett insists: "A great deal of the book actually praises Gordon" and believes that "Tony, Gordon, Jack [Straw] and myself would be entirely on board with the ideas in the book."

I ask whether he really wants to be the next Labour leader, and whether he thinks it's possible, given his blindness.

He refers me to an interview he did at the beginning of the year: "I said it's highly unlikely that, at this moment in time, someone who couldn't see would become prime minister. I'm not ruling out that someone else might do that, but I'm certainly not ambitious for that job myself."

He declares himself happy to be doing one of the more difficult jobs in government, and knows that, over the next few weeks, "much of what we'll be doing domestically, I'll have to carry".

Indeed he will. Blunkett will have to parry not only howls of outrage from the left about civil liberties, but fury from other voices who believe the government is not doing enough to protect the country.

What about, for example, those Muslims in Britain who openly praise the attack on New York and advocate jihad against western governments?

Blunkett won't be rushed into precipitate action: "It will take weeks to draft any legislation that we bring forward, in some cases more than weeks, and it will be debated fully in parliament."

Given the threats that he clearly takes seriously, and the weight of responsibility his job now carries, I ask whether he is frightened.

He pauses a moment, then says: "I can't afford to be. I'm so much in the public eye that I can't let myself be."

In these dark days, Blunkett comes across as a reassuring figure: tough and determined, but frank and honest about the difficulties of coping with a situation no one has experienced - or even imagined - before.

Does he believe our way of life has changed for ever?

"While we will never go back to being complacent about what was feasible or acceptable . . . it is also true that the birds sing and that people walk on the hillside, and that life goes on, and that's how it must be."

Politics is about being in the right place at the right time. This crisis has thrust the Home Secretary further into the limelight. Blunkett's handling of the difficult issues ahead will determine how big a political figure he becomes.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, What would you do?