David Blunkett Q&A: “I can genuinely say that I ‘looked up’ to Nelson Mandela”

The former politician talks Celebrity Mastermind, an early hospital visit, and the need for a unifying, radical but realistic Labour government.

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David Blunkett was born in Sheffield in 1947 and was a Labour MP for 28 years. He became Britain’s first blind cabinet minister when he was appointed education secretary in 1997 and later served as home secretary.

What’s your earliest memory?

After lots of hospital visits, it was decided that a brain tumour wasn’t the cause of my blindness. It was a relief to my parents, though not a lot to the nurses: I had worked out that if I declared the sound of the ambulance bells to be ice cream vans, they would keep some ice cream in the freezer.

Who are your heroes?

Sorry to be corny, but my childhood heroes were my mum and dad.

What book last changed your thinking?

I have two: the biography of George Orwell by my old professor Bernard Crick, and Karl Marx’s biography by Francis Wheen.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Nelson Mandela. I was privileged to meet him three times and I can genuinely say that I “looked up” to him.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

When I was home secretary, I undertook Celebrity Mastermind to raise money for charity. Not wanting to choose politics, I made life really difficult for myself by picking the Harry Potter books. I still think to myself, “When will you ever learn!”

What TV show could you not live without?

I enjoy a good drama and the rigours of University Challenge – I have been on a celebrity version of that as well, like a mug. I used to enjoy satire such as the 1960s’ That Was The Week That Was or, more cruelly, Spitting Image.

Who would paint your portrait?

It has been painted – by a very lugubrious Sheffield lass, Lorna May Wadsworth.

What’s your theme tune?

“Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, Forgive our Foolish Ways”, which is appropriate for both rejoicing and for sorrow. My wife Margaret and I had this as one of the hymns at our wedding in 2009 and I suspect she’ll have it played at my funeral.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“Never take ‘no’ for an answer,” although it has to be modified by being prepared to give a little, to know when to compromise.

What’s currently bugging you?

The discourse of the way in which we are treating each other, and by doing so, reinforcing the dangerous divide that 80 years ago destroyed so many lives and released so much hate across the world.

What single thing would make your life better?

A unifying, radical but realistic Labour government that understands where power lies and has a strategy for countervailing it.

When were you happiest?

Probably throughout the 1990s, helping to bring up my elder boys in their teenage years, seeing the real possibility of getting a Labour government and being part of it.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I have been a teacher and I’m back being a teacher – in my early days in post-16 education, and now as a professor of politics in practice at the University of Sheffield.

Are we all doomed?

I’m an eternal optimist. If we can learn from the past, we can address the future rather than the immediacy of political alienation and dysfunctionality, and then we can come through this together. l

Lord Blunkett will be chairing “Ruling from the Heart: the Poet and the Cabinet Minister” at the Westminster Abbey Institute on 19 November

This article appears in the 30 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone