Back to website

Dec 17 2004,,1059-1406198,00.html

He was a dangerous man

Simon Jenkins

David Blunkett, the demagogic face of Blairism, was the worst Home Secretary of modern times

THE GREATEST treason, wrote T. S.Eliot, is to do the right deed for the wrong reason. Britain has rid itself of one of the worst Home Secretaries of modern times. But it has done so for a minor abuse of office to help a friend. The British constitution invites Eliot’s treason. It offers no way of removing ministers for being bad, only for being silly. This week silliness has triumphed.

One of the worst Home Secretaries? Yes. As symbolic climax to David Blunkett’s era at the Home Office the law lords yesterday declared illegal his use of imprisonment without trial at Belmarsh prison. While not as outrageous as Guantanamo Bay, Mr Blunkett’s suspension of habeas corpus marked a new low in the story of British illiberalism. He seemed a man unable to balance the competing claims of security and liberty in a free society; indeed he had little understanding of the rule of law.

Mr Blunkett displayed all the traits of the classic revolutionary, using the ideology of the Left to gain power and of the Right to keep it. His pandering to base populism was blatant. He terrorised his office into dancing to any tune played by the morning newspapers. His predecessor in such demonology, Michael Howard, was at least a rationalist. He would argue every toss. Mr Blunkett was an emotionalist. He was the demagogic face of Blairism.

Mr Blunkett was that most dangerous custodian of public order, a man who passed from municipal anarchism to rightwing nihilism without so much as a sniff at liberalism along the way. The rabidly Marxist leader of Sheffield council found his metier in outflanking the Right. His favourite party trick with right-wing journalists was to insult “airy-fairy” judges and “bleeding-heart liberati”. He jeered at the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, as a “confused old codger”, and drove him to consider early retirement. Small wonder he caroused so easily in the salons of The Spectator magazine.

As Home Secretary, Mr Blunkett sought ever more power for his office, yet rarely showed the courage to use it progressively. He demanded the right to veto the selection of judges, impose ever tighter sentencing tariffs and choose who should adjudicate on the actions of the executive. He pretended to update the drug laws, then capitulated to the police and made them tougher. To grab a newspaper headline he prejudged the trial of a football supporter, and did not bother to apologise.

Not a week passed without some half-baked initiative emanating from his department. (I could once fill a whole column with a list of them.) Parliamentary draftsmen lost count of the supposedly crime-busting Bills and statutory instruments streaming from his hand — five in the last Queen’s Speech alone. His celebrated £7 million swoop on robbery in London, Operation Safer Streets, achieved nothing but a temporary shift of muggers around town. The outcome was a few headlines. Mr Blunkett embodied the jerky, reactive, spasm government that is the hallmark of new Labour.

The true obstacles to lowering crime in Britain, the police and prison unions, Mr Blunkett dared not confront. He made no serious effort to get the police out of their offices and cars and back on to the streets, as was done in America. Instead he spent millions on auxiliaries and left neighbourhoods to hire civilian wardens to protect their property.

Meanwhile, the Prison Service is as described in the recent memoirs of Sir David Ramsbotham, the former Chief Inspector of Prisons, the private fiefdom of the Prison Officers’ Association. Mr Blunkett presided over the highest jail population ever, 75,000, including a rising proportion of women and pensioners. He merged the Probation Service into the Prison Service and curbed that bane of every Home Secretary’s life, the Inspectorate of Prisons. After his watch, Britain’s streets are the most underpoliced, its prisons the most overpopulated and its drugs consumption the highest in Europe.

Worst of all has been Mr Blunkett’s exploitation of the irrationalist’s favourite slogan: “9/11 changed everything”. He was party to Mr Blair’s “softening up” of public opinion before the Iraq adventure. Each Friday there would be a warning of some — imminent disaster involving sarin, anthrax, smallpox or a “dirty weapon of mass destruction”, always a matter of “not if but when”. On his last day in office, the Metropolitan Police — of which he never divested control to the Mayor of London — issued a “Christmas terror alert”. Such gratuitous gestures cost Londoners millions in lost business.

Mr Blunkett used the so-called War on Terror to breathe life into every draconian ghoul in the darkest recesses of the political cupboard. His introduction of indefinite imprisonment without trial has been humiliatingly slapped down as contrary to European law. He has never taken a public stance against the American use of Guantanamo Bay. His final coup was to terrorise his Cabinet colleagues and the Conservative Opposition into adopting the most hallowed, and previously unrealisable, juju in the Home Office armoury, compulsory ID cards.

The cards are the quintessential Blunkett reform. They are already considered unreliable by security pundits, who prefer subcutaneous microchips. Cards have nowhere proved a bulwark against terrorism and are certain to break even the NHS record for Whitehall computer fiascos. As against other security programmes with a potential cost of £20 billion, ID cards are a total absurdity. But in Mr Blunkett’s hands they were macho. Enough said.

We may not speak ill of the dead, but Mr Blunkett is not dead. Only the warped outlook of the Westminster village could explain yesterday’s saccharine epitaphs on the “tragedy” of his career. To his personal friends I am sure Mr Blunkett has fine qualities which they may personally applaud. To the nation he was Home Secretary, and a dreadful one.