Shh! Blunkett is almost liberal

The stories that politicians on the make need to spin unintentionally reveal the nature of the regime they wish to serve. Before the election, David Blunkett all but screamed his ambition to be Home Secretary to journalists. "And when I am," he said, "I'll make Jack Straw look like a liberal." To win the admiration of Tony Blair, in other words, he needed to accept Straw's ideology of authoritarianism, secrecy and the suppression of dissent, and signal to the Prime Minister his ambition to carry it to the extreme.

Libertarians began to wail as soon as he was appointed. You could hear their cries last week when Blunkett condemned Channel 4 for broadcasting Brass Eye's satire on the paedophile panic - a programme he did not (in fact, could not) see. Blunkett has been a suspect figure to well-meaning progressives for years. He is known to have his doubts about the repeal of Section 28, and opposed the lowering of the age of consent for homosexuals.

For his critics, such attitudes are enough to close the case for the prosecution. But their dismissal of the Home Secretary is too brisk. Whisper the heretical thought, but Blunkett is not quite as bad a home secretary as he wants you and the Prime Minister to believe.

His attack on Brass Eye was simply silly. The demands for vengeance which dominated the newspapers before the Bulger killers were released, by contrast, required a rebuttal from a politician with genuine courage. Blunkett was not found wanting. He called for everyone involved in the case to "take a deep breath" and reminded them that "we are not in the Midwest in the mid-19th century, we are in Britain in the 21st century and we will deal with things effectively and we will deal with them in a civilised manner".

Those who condemn his views on homosexuality ignore the fact that the battle for gay liberation has already been won. Section 28 may be an obnoxious piece of legislation in principle, but the struggle between its defenders and opponents is pure gesture politics. Neither side wants to admit that no public servant has ever been prosecuted for promoting homosexuality because teachers and social workers don't now and never have committed the "offence". Whether it stays or goes, the law is a dead letter whose only purpose is to give indolent pundits and phone-in hosts something to shout about.

Blunkett is showing signs that he is prepared to do serious work. He inherited a promise Straw made to last year's Labour Party conference to review the vouchers given to asylum-seekers. At the moment, a single asylum-seeker is forced to live far below the poverty line of £36.50 a week. Blunkett now wants to scrap the vouchers.

He also seems to recognise that those who are tough on criminals are usually soft on crime. Cramming offenders into cells may satisfy vindictive impulses, but if the state does not make an attempt to rehabilitate them, they will simply commit more crimes on release. Blunkett has made clear that he will not tolerate a prison system where two-thirds of the inmates are so illiterate and innumerate, they are unfit for virtually any job on offer outside. No home secretary is going to win much praise for promoting prison education, but, as in the Bulger case, Blunkett seems prepared to put good government before good headlines.

We do not wish to overstate Blunkett's liberalism. He has persisted with the expulsion of juries from the courts. He continues to pose as a man of the people while supporting legislation which tacitly accepts that those same people are too unreliable to be the conscience of their communities, and must be replaced with judges - appointed by the multimillionaire Lord Chancellor.

There are many grounds for criticising Blunkett. What his severest opponent cannot say, however, is that he is less liberal than Jack Straw. We hope we have not ruined his career by making this clear.

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The Murdochs: a family saga