British Labour Politician
Born on the 6th June 1947 at Sheffield in Yorkshire, David Blunkett was blind from birth, due to the failure of his optic nerve to develop. He was born into real hardship, and had a fairly miserable childhood, described as 'Dickensian' by some commentators and made worse by the fact that he lost his father Arthur Blunkett at the age of twelve, who died as the result of an industrial accident in which he fell into a vat of boiling water, leaving his family in comparative poverty.1
At the age of four he was sent away, against the wishes of his parents, to the Sheffield School for the Blind, following which he was despatched to the Royal Normal College for the Blind in Shrewsbury2. At the time the RNCB believed in educating the blind to live independent lives, although apparently the only choices on offer were training as either a piano tuner or a shorthand typist. Blunkett was not satisfied with either of these options, and although he was happy to study braille, typing and shorthand, fought to be allowed to attend evening classes at Shrewsbury Technical College where he took his O-levels, despite the 'progressive' views of his headmaster who believed that "exams were not merely unnecessary but positively harmful".
When he returned to Sheffield in 1967 he went to work at the East Midlands Gas Board notwithstanding its prior role in his father's death, and through a combination of day release and evening courses attended the Sheffield Richmond College of Further Education where he obtained A-levels in economics, politics and economic history. He was thus able to leave the employment of the Gas Board in 1969 to attend Sheffield University where he graduated with an honours degree in political theory and institutions in 1972. In the following year he went to Huddersfield College of Education where he gained his PGCE after which he was employed as a tutor in industrial relations and politics at Barnsley College of Technology from 1973 to 1981.
Having developed an interest in politics he joined the Labour Party at the age of sixteen, and shortly before his twenty-third birthday in 1970, Blunkett became the youngest-ever councillor on Sheffield City Council whilst still a student at Sheffield University. He spent the next eighteen years on the council, serving as Leader between 1980 and 1987 and combining his duties with a seat on South Yorkshire County Council from 1973 to 1977. During this time Blunkett was very much on the hard left of the party and a keen disciple of Tony Benn. Under Blunkett's guidance Sheffield council adopted all the fashionable left wing causes of the day; the city twinned itself with Donetsk in the Soviet Union, introduced 'peace studies' into schools and declared itself a nuclear-free zone, whilst the red flag fluttered above the council offices. It became the very model of the 'loony left' council the Tories loved to hate, it soon became known as the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire3.
Such posturing however did Blunkett no harm within the Left of the Labour Party and in 1983 he was elected to the Party's National Executive Committee, the first non-MP to do so since the days of Harold Laski some forty years before. But despite his popularity within certain quarters of the party he was regarded as "fundamentally untrustworthy" by Neil Kinnock due to his suspected contacts and sympathy with the ultra-left Militant Tendency.
Of course Blunkett had ambitions to move from local to national politics. He had first unsuccessfully contested the Sheffield Hallam constituency in 1974 but had his eyes on the seat of Sheffield Brightside, one of the safest Labour seats in the country. Indeed Kinnock appears to have suspected that much of Blunkett's left wing rhetoric was only designed to appeal to the Brightside constituency party. If this was the case it worked, for Bluckett won selection as the PPC for Sheffield Brightside and was duly returned to the House of Commons at the 1987 General Election.
Notwithstanding Kinnock's prior reservations, Blunkett was almost immediately elevated to the status of opposition spokesman for environment and local government in 1988, and when John Smith replaced Kinnock as leader he became shadow Secretary of State for Health in 1992. By this time Blunkett appears to have jettisoned many of his earlier radical beliefs and become an enthusiastic believer in the modernisation of the party. When Tony Blair replaced Smith as leader in 1994, he was apparently of the opinion that Blunkett was "the ideal Labour politician" and invited him to dinner at his home in Richmond Crescent, Islington, and Blunkett soon became a member of the inner circle of New Labour. Under Blair Blunkett became shadow Secretary of State firstly for Education (1994-1995) and then Education and Employment (1995-1997)4, which given that Blair proclaimed that his party's three priorities in government were to be "education, education, education" shows the importance Blunkett had assumed within the New Labour Project.
In Government 1997-2004
With the Labour Party's overwhelming victory in the general election of May 1997, Blunkett became the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, incidentally becoming the United Kingdom's first blind cabinet minister. Once installed he soon began expounding the vision of Britain as a learning society and called for a revolution in attitudes to learning, and was responsible for a range of new initiatives including the literacy and numeracy strategy, Surestart and Universal Nursery Education Programme, as well as introducing the concept of Citizenship Studies. He became one of the few ministers capable of arguing his case with the Chancellor and was successful in persuading Brown to increase the funds available for schools. He also saw fit to introduced a new system of means-tested tuition fees for university students whilst abolishing the student grant system, a decision that was not universally popular.
Blunkett was widely regarded as a having have been a success at Education, the star performer in the cabinet, a politician who had not only got the job done, but had convinced the public that he had done so, and was already being spoken of as potential successor to Blair. It was widely expected that he would be made Home Secretary in the event of a Labour victory in the 2001 General Election, a prospect that worried many as they feared that he "would make Jack Straw look like a hippy anarchist". In the event all expectations were fulfilled, Labour won the election, Blunkett became Home Secretary, and rapidly attracted the reputation of being the most right-wing, authoritarian home secretary in living memory. He was responsible for the decision downgrade cannabis from a Grade B to Grade C status, but that appears to the only vaguely liberal measure with which he was ever associated.
He appears to have been particularly anxious to be seen as tough on the issues of immigration and asylum, and equally anxious to make his views known in plain and blunt language. He told refugees from Afghanistan and Kosovo to "get back home" and start rebuilding their own countries, and told Asian immigrants that they needed to develop a "sense of belonging" and to "learn English". He informed everyone that the criminal justice system needed rebalancing in favour of the victims of crime, classed his critics as "
airy fairy libertarians" and once denounced trendy Islington councillors for allowing "paedophiles, pimps and drug dealers" to victimise children. However he always claimed that he had "liberal objectives" claiming that "The lesson of history is that unless the left understands the critical nature of order and stability the right will always succeed. That is just a simple fact."
None of which necessarily impressed his critics; Anthony Howard claimed that "We have not seen a more repressive home secretary since the glory days of Sir William Joynson-Hicks in the 1920s", whilst the arch-liberal QC Helena Kennedy devoted an entire book to an attack on him.
Of course his time was Home Secretary was dominated by the issue of security in the aftermath of the World Trade Centre attack of the 9th September 2001, which arguably allowed his authoritarian instincts to operate in full. Under Blunkett's guidance the UK made further strides towards establishing a national DNA database whilst he became a passionate advocate the adoption of a national identity card scheme. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 in particular came in for criticism, and he was also attacked for his decision to 'opt out' of part of the European Convention on Human Rights in order to allow the indefinite detention without trial of foreign terrorist suspects held at Belmarsh Prison in south London (Britain's Guantanamo Bay). The House of Lords subsequently disagreed with him in December 2004 who declared that "imprisonment without charge or trial is anathema in any country which observes the rule of law".
By the summer of 2004 and despite the dismay of many liberals, Blunkett emerged as a popular and successful Home Secretary who appeared to be making good on Blair's own promise to be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". He had however been sowing the seeds of his own downfall for some time.
Although it was not public knowledge at the time, Blunkett had been conducting an affair with the American-born Kimberly Quinn, publisher of The Spectator, since 2002. Sometime in the summer of 2004 Mrs Quinn decided to end the relationship, which became increasingly soured as a dispute arose between the two ex-lovers over the status of a child borne by Mrs Quinn during the course of the affair. It was the News of the World, which first broke the story in August 2004 and by November a number of specific allegations had emerged regarding Blunkett's conduct; specifically that he had used his influence as Home Secretary to expedite a visa application by one Leoncia Casalme, a Filipino employed as a nanny by Mrs Quinn, together with allegations that he had improperly claimed certain expenses.
Alan Budd was instructed to investigate the allegation regarding the visa application (very naturally dubbed 'Nannygate' by the press), whilst the Parliamentary Standards Committee began investigating his expense claims. But before either could issue their findings, and having been given advance warning of Budd's conclusions, Blunkett resigned on the 15th December 2004, later explaining that this was "the only way of clearing the decks, dealing with my private life out of the glare of publicity and avoiding any damage to the Government".
Budd's report duly appeared on the 21st December 2004, concluded that he had "been able to establish a chain of events linking Blunkett to the change in the decision on Mrs Casalme's application" although precisely what that link was he was unable to say. Although it was clear that Mrs Casalme's visa application had, in the words of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, been processed with "no favours but slightly quicker" and thus taken nineteen days rather than the expected twelve months, Budd was unable to say whether this was due to favouritism on Blunkett's part or simply because he wished to draw attention to the case as an example of the way in which the Immigration and Nationality Directorate was unable to deal with matters in a timely fashion5. On the same day as Budd's report was released the Parliamentary Standards committee issued its own report, concluding that Blunkett had broken the rules by claiming reimbursement for a railway ticket to the value of £179. Blunkett in turn admitted the error, claimed it was an honest mistake and repaid the amount.
Some have argued that Blunkett might well have been able to hold on to office had he been able to count on the support of his cabinet colleagues. Unfortunately his situation was not helped by the fact that a recently published biography had included details of a number of disparaging remarks Blunkett had made about his colleagues. Gordon Brown's supporters were dismissed as "little bits of slime", Charles Clarke was "a disappointment", Jack Straw "a disaster", whilst even Tony Blair was noted for his inability to take criticism. It is perhaps not surprising that the government Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong was alleged to have hurled a copy of the book across the Commons chamber in disgust.
Within a few months he was back in office, as following the 2005 General Election Blunkett returned to the Cabinet as the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, although given what happened soon thereafter reasonably conclude that such a rapid return to office came as surprise to Blunkett, although why that should be so isn't clear, as Blair's intentions were known in the advance.
It as at this point that it is important to note that former ministers were not supposed to take any offers of employment in the private sector without first obtaining the permission of a body known as the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. Blunkett's second fall from grace was to be occasioned by a failure to adhere to these rules 6.
Shortly before the 2005 general election Blunkett had agreed to become the director of a company called DNA Structures in which he also held some shares 7. He had done so without clearing the matter with the Advisory Committee, and since DNA Structures was considering bidding for a government contract to carry out DNA paternity testing on behalf of the Child Support Agency (for which he, as minister heading the Department for Work and Pensions was responsible) there was at least a potential conflict of interest. Blunkett however declared that he would not be resigning saying "I have done nothing wrong".
The Cabinet secretary Gus O'Donnell was asked to produce a report on the matter which led Tony Blair to announce "I could discover no impropriety or wrongdoing" and concluded that there was no reason why Blunkett should resign. However it soon emerged that the Advisory Committee had in fact been aware of Blunkett's directorship and had written to him on three separate occasions asking him to discuss the matter with them but that he had failed to reply. It also emerged that Blunkett had taken two other paid jobs, one with the charitable organisation World ORT and another with Indepen Consulting neither of which he had discussed with the Advisory Committee.8
Nevertheless Blunkett retained Blair's support, which was reiterated when the two met at Downing Street on the 2nd November 2005 prior to Blunkett's appearance before a House of Commons Select Committee to explain himself. It was apparently only as he was walking from Downing Street to Portcullis House that Blunkett came to the conclusion that it was time to resign once more, later expressing his regret "for the embarrassment I have caused the prime minister".
Blunkett and his women
In 1970 Blunkett had married his fellow student Ruth Gwynneth Mitchell and together they had raised three sons. The relationship later ran into difficulties and they were separated by 1988 and divorced in 1990. Blunkett himself was later to claim that he had suffered twenty years of a "joyless domesticity", whilst his biographer argued that the marriage foundered because his wife was "resenting the amount of time she was having to devote to her husband's career". It is of course entirely possible that his wife, who has not spoken publicly on the matter, might well provide an entirely different perspective.
Despite being a divorcee Blunkett continued to wear his wedding ring as he revealed to the Daily Telegraph in 2001, claiming that it was "a useful way of ensuring that people don't casually think I am available" and adding that "I am not available because I am just getting on with the job." Presumably he had dispensed with the ring by the time he met Kimberly Quinn at a Spectator dinner at Wheeler's fish restaurant, and he began an affair with her in January 2002. Described by one account as "a seductress who makes Mae West look demure", at the time Quinn was only a few months into her second marriage with millionaire publisher of Vogue Stephen Quinn. The existence of said prior commitment did not appear to have impeded Quinn's ability to go on holiday with Blunkett to Corfu, neither does it appear to have prevented her from simultaneously conducting another affair with the Guardian journalist Simon Hoggart. (Not to mention the allegations that there was also 'fourth man' involved.)
During the course of the affair Quinn gave birth to a boy named William, and at the conclusion of the affair Blunkett sought to establish his paternal rights over William believing, correctly as it happens, that he was the boy's father. By this time Quinn had developed a new found enthusiasm for her marriage and was anxious to resist Blunkett's claim, believing that the boy should be brought up as if it were her husband's. Much of the information that therefore surfaced in the autumn of 2004 regarding Blunkett's alleged misdemeanors appears to have come from Kimberley Quinn who believed that this would dissuade him from pursuing his case through the courts. The Sun even went so far as to claim that Quinn had sought to "blackmail" Blunkett into relinquishing his claim for parental rights by threatening to reveal the information.
In this respect Blunkett appears to have called Quinn's bluff and decided to put his private concerns above his political career. Subsequent court ordered DNA tests (which one can only assume were not carried out by DNA Structures) confirmed that he was the father of William. Tests also confirmed that he was not the father of Quinn's newborn son, Lorcan; but although it had been alleged that Blunkett had also claimed paternity of this boy as well, Blunkett himself denied that he had ever done so.
Their dispute remains unresolved, and the one thing that can be said in Blunkett's favour is that at least he appears in a better light than his former lover, described by one source as "a ruthless woman who will do whatever is best for herself"9. It has however inspired a number of writers to present their own version of the tangled tale.
The first of these was a stage play Who's the Daddy? appeared in February 2005, and retold the story as a "trouser-dropping farce" and featured Blunkett as a "randy old goat of a Yorkshireman tap-tapping his unseeing way into trouble, oblivious to the saucy shenanigans going on under his nose" The same month saw the premiere of Blunkett - The Musical in York, whilst in October 2005 the story made its way onto television with the broadcast of A Very Social Secretary, with Bernard Hill playing the part of Blunkett as a love-struck fool who was hopeless in bed. (All of the above also feature the character of Boris Johnson, at the time an employee of The Spectator, who was also conducting his own extra-marital dalliance with fellow journalist Petronella Wyatt.)
Blunkett was most recently to be found in the company of a twenty-nine year-old estate agent by the name of Sally Anderson at the Mayfair nightclub Annabel's. Although it turned out that Ms Anderson appears to have established a relationship with Blunkett purely for the purposes of selling her 'kiss-and-tell' story to the tabloids, as a result of which he is expecting to receive substantial" damages from The People
it was also revealed that Blunkett had been in receipt of a free membership at Annabel's which, once again had he neglected to enter in the Register of Members Interests.
If nothing else this has all confirmed Blunkett's position as something of a figure of fun in modern Britain. Once a politician of some note he has now descended to the level of a tabloid celebrity; sharing with Peter Mandelson the distinction of having twice resigned from office, baring miracles it now appears that Blunkett's political career is over. The latest rumour is that he was after the job of ambassador to the United States, although in the meantine he is writing his "rigorously honest" memoirs for which he is reputed to have been paid an advance of £500,000.
Blunkett the man
Blunkett hates lawyers, a hatred explained, according to Blunkett himself, by the long struggles his mother went through to obtain compensation from the East Midlands Gas Board after his father's industrial accident, when the Gas Board's lawyers tried ever legal trick to avoid liability. It is said that he had a hand in Blair's decision to sack Derry Irvine as Lord Chancellor as Blunkett regarded him as the perfect example of the kind of lawyer he loved to hate. He also has a deep mistrust of liberal professionals who were, of course, the very same people who decided that he should spend his entire childhood separated from his family simply because they knew it was 'for his own good' and tried to persuade him that he could aspire to be nothing more than a copy typist.
None of which necessarily endears Blunkett to certain sections of the Labour Party which, of course, is largely composed these days of lawyers and liberal professionals. Blunkett simply refuses to pander to any sense of political correctness, and can get away with it, since he's blind and thus a member of an oppressed minority. It was characteristic of Blunkett to admit that he was going to "open a bottle" to celebrate the news that the serial killer Harold Shipman had committed suicide. He was probably right when he defended himself by claiming that he was only "speaking in the way that the people who elect you feel", but it nevertheless occasioned a sharp intake of breath from some quarters.
In a curious way Blunkett reminds many people of Enoch Powell at his populist best, keen to reflect the concerns of what he sees as ordinary men and women and doesn't care if he offends the sensibilities of the liberal middle-classes in so doing. It is presumably only the lack of a classical education that has prevented him from quoting Virgil.
1 Arthur Blunkett was employed by the East Midlands Gas Board, and had agreed to continue working despite reaching retirement age in order to train new employees. After his accidental death the Gas Board initally refused to pay compensation citing a number of legal technicalties in an attempt to avoid liability.
2 Now known as the Royal National College for the Blind the college moved to Hereford in 1978.
3 According to Hansard, tradition accords Irvine Patnick, the Conservative MP for Sheffield Hallam, the distinction of coining this particular phrase (see http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199798/cmhansrd/vo970519/debtext/70519-17.htm)
4 Periodically British governments like to play musical chairs with government departments and ministerial responsibilities and in 1995 the Department of Education became the Department of Education and Employment.
5 Blunkett said that he accepted the report's findings adding the rather cryptic remark that "where his findings differ from my recollections this is simply due to failure on my part to recall details".
6 The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments was established as a result of the indecent haste by which some former politicians (and indeed civil servants) were obtaining lucrative jobs in the private sector purely on the basis of the value of the 'inside information' they had obtained whilst in their previous employment. Under the Ministerial Code of Conduct, ministers were obliged to consult this committee.
7 DNA Structures Ltd trading as DNA Biocences was a company run by Blunkett's friend Tariq Siddiqi. bought a three per cent shareholding which was held in trust for his three elder sons. Blunkett was only a director for two weeks and later denied that there was ever any question of any conflict of interest as "The contract for the CSA paternity tests is not due for renewal until 2008." He also claimed that he had "never made representations to the Department or the Child Support Agency (or any other Government department) on behalf of DNA Bioscience".
8 Indepen Consulting had won a contract from the Department of Trade to produce a study of the European economy for a conference held in London in September. World ORT is a world-wide Jewish charity whose interest lies in education and training (www.ort.org); at the time planning to open a Jewish secondary school in London, "subject to government approval of the £46 million grant application".
9 According to The Daily Mail quoting a 'friend' of Mrs Quinn.
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