Reading extracts from David Blunkett’s diary took me back to a time when the Labour Party looked very different to the one we see today.
Looking at the crop of bright young and not so young things that surround Tony Blair – and for that matter Gordon Brown – it is hard to think of them as anything other than career politicians.
Things seemed very different when the likes of David Blunkett emerged on the political scene.
For all their many faults, people like Blunkett, Ken Livingstone and Peter Hain seemed at one point to actually have some principles, some notion of improving the lot of working people, a genuine hatred of the Tories.
Blunkett had emerged as leader of Sheffield City Council in what was seen as part of a Labour left rearguard action at local government level against Thatcherite lunacy.
Actually Blunkett’s Sheffield left the field of struggle when the going got tough. Nevertheless he became a well known figure, who was rapidly advancing up Labour Party ranks.
His reputation was enhanced by the fact that he was achieving all this while being blind.
Yet these diary extracts show nothing of the “old Blunkett” – if indeed any such figure ever existed. Instead you find a man obsessed with status, ambition and personal intrigue, while being entirely seduced by celebrity and all the trappings that go with it.
The diaries are an excruciating mixture of self serving, self pitying and endless grudges.
Nevertheless there is one constant in his life – Tony Blair. Blunkett likes to sell himself as a tough talking, no nonsense, hard bitten figure. Yet when writing about Blair the fawning is utterly embarrassing – we have to worry about “the stress Tony puts himself under”, “the hours Tony works” and so on.
Even his sleeping hours are dominated by Blair:
“Had a terrible dream on Thursday night – a dream that had all the undertones of being on the outside, of being alienated, of being given the cold shoulder, of being friendless and leaning on a stick, having fallen out with Tony Blair and then having challenged him in the middle of a speech in the Commons and humiliating him by raising something that left him floundering.”
Yes, “being on the outside” and “falling out with Tony” are the very worst that could happen.
Much worse for instance than sitting in cabinet happily endorsing a war you’re not sure about, and tactics you don’t agree with. The death and destruction that resulted from those actions appear not to cause Blunkett any nocturnal problems at all.
Indeed the section of the diary on the war is the most revealing. It is clear that with one or two exceptions – notably Geoff “Buff” Hoon – most cabinet ministers were unenthusiastic. All of them though, with the honourable exception of Robin Cook and belatedly Clare Short, chose their careers ahead of any principle, criticism or doubt.
The best example of this is Gordon Brown, whose support or otherwise for the war was guided by his own career advancement rather than any principled consideration.
Either Brown was in favour of the war, and therefore no better than Blair, or he was against it (or at least critical of it) – in which case eternal shame on him for not saying so.
Meanwhile away from the apparent trivia of the war, we find the much greater tragedy of the fall of Blunkett. As he puts it after his second and final fall from grace, “The seminal day in my political life. The day I had not believed would ever come.”
Come it did though, with wailing and gnashing of teeth – no more the insider, friend of the powerful, gallivanter at Annabel’s, media star.
What remained, though, is self pity, and self justification.
Although he fast tracked his lover’s nanny’s immigration visa – he didn’t really. Although this former Labour leftie shouldn’t really have bought shares in DNA Bioscience, it was just an unfortunate slip.
The one thing he is rightly proud of is not letting his blindness be an issue, nor allowing anyone to patronise him…well not quite “anyone”.
“When I was leader of Sheffield City Council, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh came to Sheffield for an official visit and I was hosting lunch,” he writes.
“It was one of those very pleasant occasions when it was possible to sit next to Her Majesty and have a genuine conversation, but (and I know she will forgive me for recalling it) it was strange when twice she asked me if I would like my meat cutting up – strange not because it was not a kind and thoughtful question, but because of the comment she made when I politely declined: ‘You know, I often do it for the corgis’.”
A dog’s dinner of a remark in a dog’s dinner of a diary.
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