David Blunkett - An Authoritarian Inhales

David Blunkett - An Authoritarian Inhales
Posted by FoM on October 26, 2001 at 19:10:07 PT
From The Economist Print Edition
Source: Economist
Even his Conservative opponents will admit over a good enough lunch that David Blunkett is a formidable politician. Indeed, David Willetts, his Tory opposite when Mr Blunkett was still in charge of education, remembers feeling confident only once that one of his parliamentary assaults on Mr Blunkett was striking home. For reasons that Mr Willetts could not quite fathom at the time, a speech he was making in the Commons began to cause visible consternation not only to Mr Blunkett himself but also to the whole Labour front bench. Encouraged, Mr Willetts yammered on. Only when he was half-way through his peroration did he receive a chastening handscribbled note. The consternation opposite had been caused not by Mr Willetts's debating shafts but by the fact that Mr Blunkett's guide dog had just been sick on the Commons floor.
The guide dog—or, at least, what the guide dog represents—is of course part of what makes Mr Blunkett formidable. Nobody who has been blind for most of his life, and bone-poor for all of his childhood, rises to the cabinet unless he has something special about him. But this is far from being Mr Blunkett's chief advantage in politics. His chief advantage arises from his having been a hero of municipal socialism when he was leader of Sheffield City Council during the Thatcher years, and now being a completely sincere adherent of New Labour. In the Labour Party, this bridging of traditions gives him a moral authority that lesser cabinet ministers can only aspire to. By the time of the general election last June, the drive, the legend, the moral authority, the imminence of a book of great political thoughts and his elevation from education secretary to home secretary had conspired to set off speculation that he and not Gordon Brown might in the end inherit the leadership from Tony Blair.Four months on, how is Mr Blunkett faring? The book of great political thoughts is, frankly, a bit of a bore. “Politics and Progress: Renewing Democracy and Civil Society” (Politico's, £8.99) will not propel the home secretary into the bestsellers' list with its calls for rebuilding democratic dialogue, lifelong learning, an active welfare state, a stronger sense of citizenship and other familiar ideas. On the other hand, being home secretary, especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11th launched a thousand editorial columns on the proper trade-off between public safety and civil liberties, has propelled Mr Blunkett even further up the news agenda than he was as education secretary. This, of course, is both a danger and an opportunity.The Home Office is famous for tripping up even the most agile politicians. For Mr Blunkett it held an extra danger. His reputation as a social authoritarian primed critics on Labour's left to expect a home secretary who would be “even more right-wing” than Jack Straw, the man he replaced. One of the first things Mr Blunkett did at the Home Office was to sack Keith Hellawell, the drugs “tsar”. Mr Blunkett recognised that the drugs policy was going nowhere. Despite having some of the toughest anti-drugs laws in the developed world, Britain also has one of Europe's worst addiction records. This week, Mr Blunkett announced his intention to reclassify cannabis from a class B drug to class C, putting it in the same category as anti-depressants and steroids. Technically, cannabis will remain illegal, but people will no longer be prosecuted for possessing it. The use of cannabis for medical purposes will be legalised, after more research. The government may also consider reclassifying other drugs, such as ecstasy.This is a sensible change on the margins of drug policy rather than a radical move towards decriminalisation. But even this had been rejected by Mr Straw for “sending out all the wrong signals” when it was recommended last year by the Police Foundation, a rather superior committee of the great and good. Mr Blunkett's U-turn might of course suggest a simple difference of policy opinion: he was influenced largely by the disproportionate amount of police time wasted in cannabis-related arrests. But it also suggests that this supposed social authoritarian is less wary than Mr Straw was of exposing himself to the charge of being a liberal, and more able to persuade Mr Blair to change direction. It also fits in well, his friends say, with his general political philosophy. Shocked by the low voter turnout in June's election, he has been arguing that politicians lose respect when they pass or retain unenforceable laws. Twin Towers So far, so admirable. September 11th, on the other hand, poses more delicate challenges. A home secretary who does too little to rebalance civil liberty and public safety looks complacent. One who does too much looks authoritarian. Just before going to the Labour Party conference last month, Mr Blunkett wrote an article in the Guardian promising to approach this balancing act “with care”. Quoting his new book, he stressed the need to secure democracy by “reinvigorating democratic engagement” and revitalising “wider civil society” so that individuals can truly be “active citizens”. Freedom, he asserted, does not just mean doing what you want without harming others. “It means engaging in the wider collective endeavour of shaping our society.”Well, maybe. But after the twin towers, it is not “positive” liberty—active citizenship, more voting and all that—that is at risk. It is that old-fangled right to do what you want if it does not hurt others that Mr Blunkett needs to weigh against the demands of public safety. Instead, he proposes to make it easier to detain suspects without charge, to suspend parts of Mr Straw's Human Rights Act, to introduce a retrospective law to penalise anthrax hoaxers, and to frame a law to ban the incitement of religious hatred. Exceptional times do of course demand exceptional measures. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that when municipal socialism meets New Labour, liberty is not prized as it should be. Perhaps that book of his deserves closer scrutiny. Source: Economist, The (UK) Published: October 25th 2001 From The Economist Print EditionCopyright: 2001 The Economist Newspaper Limited Contact: letters Website: Related Articles:Campaigners Applaud Cannabis Reform Britain is Going Dutch Bases Its New Policy on the Belgian Policy 
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