Wet Blunkett

Issue: 113

John Newsinger

A review of David Blunkett, The Blunkett Tapes (Bloomsbury, 2006), £25

With the publication of his supposed ‘diaries’, David Blunkett has achieved an impressive hat-trick: the former heads of the Metropolitan Police, the Prison Service and the Armed Forces have all publicly called him a liar. This is a remarkable achievement for any former home secretary, let alone one as right wing as Blunkett. Indeed nothing like it has ever happened before. While at one level this obviously reflects on Blunkett’s honesty, or rather lack of it, more important is what it tells us about the culture of New Labour and the state of the Blairite project. First though, what about Blunkett?

Of particular interest in this regard is the tale that Martin Narey, the former Director-General of the Prison Service, had to tell. He was incensed by Blunkett’s self-aggrandising account of his performance during the Lincoln prison riot of October 2002. In his ‘diaries’ Blunkett relates how he had to instruct Narey to stop ‘dithering’ and if necessary to call in the army to retake the prison. He was worried that the rioting might spread throughout the prison system, that ‘we were within a whisker of having on our hands a total and utter catastrphe’. Blunkett emphasises that on this occasion he made a real difference, that his intervention staved off disaster. He acted decisively to strengthen ‘the arm of those who were prepared to act’ and made it clear that he was ‘prepared to override those who were dithering’. He modestly concludes that his performance on this occasion proved that he was one of the ‘best’ of Tony Blair’s ministers and that he had prevented a ‘firestorm’ engulfing the prisons.1

Narey tells a somewhat different story. He observes that Blunkett’s diary entry ‘was clearly not written at the time because he refers to me as being in overall charge of corrections (prisons and probation), a position not invented at the time of the riot and one I was not to take up until 2003’. He, on the other hand, was so disturbed by Blunkett’s behaviour that he did keep contemporaneous notes. According to these, a hysterical Blunkett phoned Narey to demand that the prison be retaken, no matter what the consequences:

‘He directed me, without delay, to order staff back into the prison. I told him that we did not, at that time, have enough in the prison to contemplate such a move, but that many more staff were on their way from other prisons. I insisted, however, that although I was determined to take the prison back as quickly as possible, I could not, and would not, risk staff or prisoners’ lives in attempting to do so. He shrieked at me that he didn’t care about lives, and told me to call in the army and “machine-gun” the prisoners. He then ordered me to take the prison back immediately. I refused. One of the prison governors who overheard the exchanges remarked incredulously, “Did he really say he didn’t care about lives?”’2

This episode reveals a great deal about New Labour and the state of the Labour Party. Blunkett was actually urging a prison massacre, something that shocked his officials, in order, it seems clear, to protect his political career. He feared that the rioting would spread to other prisons and that his carefully constructed image as a hardline reactionary would be destroyed. If this happened, his popularity with the right wing press would be at an end and his usefulness to Tony Blair would be over.

It is easy to forget the extent to which it is historically unprecedented for a Labour Home Secretary to find himself so far to the right of his prison officials, but then this government has produced many such surprises. It is a new development for a man of Blunkett’s character and reactionary opinions to be a senior figure in the Labour Party, for such a man, before his (first) resignation in December 2004, to be seriously considered as Blair’s possible successor, and indeed for him to remain a Labour MP at all. Once upon a time someone like Blunkett would have inevitably defected to the Conservatives. Clearly the Labour Party is not what it used to be. It would once have been inconceivable that a member of a Catholic right wing secret society (Ruth Kelly) could have become Secretary of State for Education or that the husband of a health minister (Tessa Jowell) could be regarded as an unfriendly witness by the Italian police in a case involving the illegal sale of contaminated blood products.3 Today anything is possible with New Labour. One can only look forward, at the time of writing, to Blair becoming the first prime minister ever to be interviewed by the police over the sale of peerages! All this is really unprecedented, but we have got used to it. It is testimony to how far the Blairites have pulled the Labour Party to the right, the extent to which they have corrupted it and left it rotten to the core.

How has this sorry state of affairs come about? How is it that David Blunkett, once a young radical Labour councillor in Sheffield, later the leader of the so-called ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’, has ended up a discredited reactionary, a man regarded as a serious threat to civil liberties, one of the most right wing members of the New Labour government?

Blunkett, as is well-known, had a very hard childhood. After the death of his father in a horrendous industrial accident4 the family was poverty-stricken and, of course, Blunkett was blind. He had enormous difficulties to overcome, but nevertheless succeeded, against considerable odds, in securing a university education and eventually becoming a Labour councillor, positioning himself on the left of the party. As Blunkett wrote in his autobiography, On A Clear Day:

‘I had already learned sufficient history to appreciate that through the ages there has been a constant struggle not only between right and wrong, but also between those with power and wealth and those with neither’.5

He marched against the Springboks tour and was on the massive demonstration against the Industrial Relations Act in 1972. He made his name, however, as a champion of subsidised public transport. By 1980 he was the leader of Sheffield Council. According to his biographer, Stephen Pollard, Blunkett always took care to appear more left wing than he really was. He was, at this time, ‘riding the left horse’ as a career strategy. He was ‘a master at playing the left gallery’. Pollard quotes one of Blunkett’s friends on this left pose:

‘Take the red flag flying over Sheffield; it was all gesture politics. It was all to make the left think that he was one of them. But he did not really believe in it. What he really wanted was office for himself and for the Labour Party’.6

He was far from alone in this adoption of a left pose at this point in time. The 1980s saw the rise of Bennism inside the Labour Party, and to secure a parliamentary seat, Blunkett had to establish his Bennite credentials. Given that his leftism was always exaggerated, it is worth making the point that at this time even the right of the Labour Party would have recoiled in horror from the politics of Blairism, from what would have been seen then as a kind of ultra-Thatcherism.

What began Blunkett’s shift to the right was apparently Thatcher’s defeat of the municipal left over rate capping and the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985. This began his trajectory from Tony Benn to Tony Blair via Neil Kinnock. What is interesting, of course, is that the miners’ strike was one of those dramatic demonstrations of the ‘constant struggle between those with wealth and power and those with neither’. The conclusions Blunkett drew from this particular episode in the struggle led to him eventually changing sides.

Which brings us, at last, to The Blunkett Tapes–surely one of the biggest publishing disasters of the decade. The publishers, Bloomsbury, paid £400,000 for this interminable 850-page exercise in self-justification and self-pity, for a book that is really without any redeeming features and that contributes nothing whatsoever to our political or historical understanding of the times we live in. Despite a massive publicity blitz on radio, television and in the press, The Blunkett Tapes sold only 769 copies in its first week on the shelves, something that will seriously affect the size of the advances paid to other Labour ministers for their memoirs.

What does Blunkett actually have to say? He is very much concerned to establish his own cleverness and decisiveness, to condemn ‘human rights fanatics’, ‘woolly-minded liberals’ and even ‘the Socialist Workers Party and its hangers-on’ and, of course, to sing the praises of Tony Blair (‘absolutely superb…a real world leader’). Interestingly, he takes every opportunity he can to put the knife into Roy Hattersley, the former deputy leader of the Labour Party, who has watched Blunkett effortlessly pass from his left to his right with ill-disguised distaste. On occasions Blunkett’s dislike for asylum seekers comes out. His infamous use of the word ‘swamped’ with regard to asylum seekers seems not so much a cynical playing of the racist card as something he felt quite genuinely. His resentment at asylum seekers turning up at his constituency surgeries is almost visceral, and on one occasion they were actually accompanied by ‘a white woman, a real do-gooder’. This is all pretty unsavoury.

One problem with Blunkett’s diaries concerns their reliability. Martin Narey, as we have already seen, effectively exposed his account of the Lincoln prison riot as fictional, and one suspects that the same is true for much of the rest of the diaries. His entries regarding the war in Iraq, for example, do not inspire the slightest confidence. It seems absolutely clear that the diary has been rewritten in light of the furore over the failure to find weapons of mass destruction.

While Blair and Co never seriously believed that they were going to find such weapons, they were confident that in the euphoria of victory such details would be easily forgotten. Blunkett’s diaries show every sign of being written in the knowledge that this was not to be, that the failure to find WMD would come to haunt them, and that some other pretext for the invasion would be necessary. He writes that it was his belief that the question of WMD was always secondary because UN Resolution 1441 provided adequate justification for attacking Iraq. Britain and the United States were merely enforcing a UN resolution.

These are just not credible as contemporaneous diary entries. Similarly, his entry explaining away Clare Short’s embarrassing revelations that the government had been listening in on the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s phone calls: she must have found the transcripts on a website. This was clearly made up after the event. Even with regard to his recent boast that during the war he had urged the bombing of Al Jazeera, one cannot possibly take his word for it without other confirmation. He might just be trying to demonstrate his reactionary credentials to the likes of Rupert Murdoch!

What do ring true, however, are his concerns about the impact of the anti-war movement. ‘How do you count a march like the one in London?’ Blunkett asked himself of the great 15 February 2003 anti-war demonstration. ‘This is not going to be an easy time’, he observed, with some understatement. ‘We have got an uphill struggle on our hands.’ And when the invasion finally began, he complained that ‘we are getting demos all over the place’. A year later he was still writing about ‘the backlash on Iraq’.7

It is necessary to put Blunkett’s trajectory from ‘soft’ left to ‘hard’ right in context. Labour MPs, even former ministers, have often completed such a transformation. It is an established feature of Labour Party history. Indeed one only has to think of Ramsay MacDonald, the leader of the party for many years and twice prime minister, defecting to the Conservatives in 1931. An even more extreme example is provided by Oswald Mosley, a former Labour junior minister, establishing the British Union of Fascists in 1932.

What is new today is that under Blair the Labour Party as a whole has defected to the right, not just its leader or individual MPs. This reflects the shift in the balance of class forces in Britain that began under Thatcher and has continued under Blair. Big business and the rich are so powerful today that Labour ministers actually see themselves as being there to serve their interests, and indeed aspire to join their ranks. When the Labour Party was first established, whatever criticisms one might have of its reformism, it was committed to fight against the injustices and inequalities in British society. New Labour, however, has enthusiastically embraced them.

A key figure in the transformation of the Labour Party has been Rupert Murdoch, not just in helping bring it about, but also in indicating exactly how far the process has gone. It would have been absolutely unthinkable before Blair for any senior Labour politician to openly court a union buster and right wing media boss of the calibre of Murdoch. Even Kinnock drew the line there. Today it is regarded in Labour ranks as unexceptional, as routine, as an inevitable part of the contemporary political process. Indeed Lance Price, a senior Labour spin doctor, has actually described Murdoch as a de facto member of the cabinet, as one of its most important members along with Gordon Brown and John Prescott.8 Attempts under the Freedom of Information Act to find out how often Blair and Murdoch have communicated predictably failed, the reason being, of course, that they are so regular as to constitute a scandal. And there is every expectation that when Blair finally retires from politics he will be rewarded with an extremely lucrative post at the top of Murdoch’s News International. Some cynics would argue that he has, in fact, been working for Murdoch for years. What the Murdoch connection does, however, is personalise New Labour’s intimate connection with the British capitalist class. It is indicative of the relationships that Blair and Brown have successfully established with big business and the rich.

Blunkett himself has benefited from Murdoch’s generosity. He found the man ‘perfectly decent to deal with—very reasonable’. One has to remind oneself that this is the same man who in 1986 recruited scab labour, sacked his entire workforce and fought a year-long lockout to break the print unions, one of the bitterest industrial battles of the period. Murdoch inflicted tremendous hardship on thousands of workers and their families, and dealt the whole labour movement a serious blow. This is of no concern at all to the New Labour leadership. When Blunkett found himself in serious trouble, with his political career collapsing around him, he wrote in his diary, ‘Thank God the Sun is totally with me. At least one newspaper is trying to tell the truth.’ This verges on the obscene. And when he finally had to resign from the government for a second time in November 2005, he immediately went to Wapping for ‘a pleasant drink’ with Murdoch, who offered him a regular column in the Sun.9 He was to be paid £150,000 a year for this. The man who had first appeared on TV in 1967 to complain about nudity and who in 1983 walked out of a play in protest against nudity on the stage apparently has no problem with Page 3.


1: D Blunkett, The Blunkett Tapes (London, 2006), pp404-406.
2: Times, 17 October 2006.
3: For a transcript of the BBC Panorama programme on David Mills see the BBC website.
4: In his autobiography Blunkett wrote of how when he was 12 his father had met ‘a dreadful agonising end’ after falling into ‘a giant vat of boiling water’. He had stayed on working for the Gas Board after retirement age at their invitation. They used his age to try and avoid paying compensation. See On A Clear Day (London, 2002), p43.
5: As above, p56.
6: S Pollard, David Blunkett (London, 2005), pp104, 105, 127. Blunkett and his suitably right wing biographer subsequently fell out when Blunkett tried to blame him for his contemptuous remarks about fellow cabinet members and others. Pollard is now among those who dismiss Blunkett as an inveterate liar.
7: The Blunkett Tapes, as above, pp278, 293, 295, 308, 449, 450, 454, 461, 711.
8: L Price, ‘Rupert Murdoch is Effectively a Member of Blair’s Cabinet’, Guardian, 1 July 2006.
9: The Blunkett Tapes, as above, pp360, 725, 853-854.