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When the News of the World broke the story of David Blunkett's affair, it did so in an extraordinarily gentle, almost apologetic, way. It did not reveal his friend's identity; it emphasised the seriousness of the Home Secretary's relationship with her; and it did not call for his resignation. Even when The Sun named Kimberly Fortier the next day, editors still treated the story with unprecedented sympathy. This unusual reticence was due partly to the tabloids' support for Blunkett's tough policies and populist style, and partly to respect for his remarkable life story.
Stephen Pollard's biography sheds useful light on both these factors. Though its publication has been rushed to catch public interest in his love life, with a final postscript coming right up to 28 November, it is not an "instant" book but a thorough narrative of Blunkett's career, already in production before the scandal exploded. The object, as with all such books, was to present him as a potential rival to Gordon Brown when Tony Blair goes. With his resignation, that ambition has been blown away.
Everyone recognises that it is an astonishing feat for a blind man to have achieved what Blunkett has done; but few can have a full conception of the obstacles he has overcome. His childhood was truly Dickensian. It is shocking to read that as recently as 1951, Sheffield council could send a four-year-old blind boy, against his parents' protests and without appeal, to a spartan boarding school on the other side of town, where they could visit him just once a month.
Then his father was killed in a horrific accident at work, and it took his mother years of legal battle to win any compensation from the Gas Board. Finally, successive blind schools did all they could to obstruct the ambition she had planted in him: it was entirely by his own determination that Blunkett took O-, then A-levels, and won a place at the University of Sheffield. He was already a Labour councillor when he took his degree, and became leader 10 years later at the age of 33.
The puzzle Pollard has to explain is how the leader of the "Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire", numbered in the 1980s with Ken Livingstone and Derek Hatton among the leaders of the "loony left" in local government, has transmogrified into the right-wing Home Secretary of today. The answer goes to the heart of the way British politics has evolved in the last 30 years.
It is not just that old left-wingers have grown conservative with age, or that young Stalinists have matured into New Labour nannies without changing their authoritarian instincts. There is some truth in that; but it applies more to other members of the present Cabinet than it does to Blunkett.
A deeper phenomenon is the way the Labour Party by the 1970s had become ideologically detached from the values of its working-class constituency. Mrs Thatcher's success was founded on winning a significant part of this constituency, which had voted Labour, to vote Conservative. Tony Blair's counterstrike since 1994 has been to win back this same constituency, plus a large swathe of Tory "Middle England", for Labour - or, rather, New Labour. Where Thatcher stole Sun readers from Callaghan, Blair stole Daily Mail readers from Major (and has so far kept them from drifting back to William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard).
Blunkett was not one of the theorists of New Labour. But his robust policies at the Department for Education and the Home Office - taking on and deliberately affronting progressive educationists and criminologists, civil-rights activists and the liberal establishment - have been a major component of its success. Pollard argues that the social philosophy behind these policies was always present in Blunkett's upbringing.
Yet he strains too hard to claim that Blunkett has been consistent throughout. He did hunt with the hard left in the 1980s. Pollard maintains that Sheffield was different from Liverpool or London, that Militant was not a big factor there - which is why Blunkett was slow to realise its poison - and that he rode the Bennite tide for his own objects without ever being fully part of it. This, however, is to credit him with too much foresight.
Blunkett was still firmly on the left when Neil Kinnock started trying to bring the party back to realism in the mid- and late-1980s. He has simply been fortunate that his underlying social conservatism chimed with the needs of New Labour a decade later - just as Thatcher's gut instincts, pragmatically suppressed while she climbed the ladder under Macmillan and Heath, were exactly what the Tory party needed in 1975. In politics, timing is as important as conviction.
Whatever his opportunism in the 1980s, Blunkett is unquestionably "authentic" today - which is why Blair is so anxious not to lose him. No one lacking Blunkett's deep roots in the Labour Party could get away with the sort of policies - on terrorism, ID cards, Asbos and asylum seekers - that he has been able to put through. His genuineness also explains the reluctance to condemn the unhappy shambles of his love life and the relatively minor corruptions into which it may have led him.
Pollard insists that Blunkett wanted to be open from the beginning about his relationship with Fortier, and still wants to do the right thing by their children. What his involvement with a newly married socialite says about his judgement, however, is another matter.
The fact is that his public life and private character are of a piece. He has got where he has only by being self-centred to the point of selfishness: he is a bulldozer who has never let obstacles stand in the way of getting what he wants. Yet his political career has depended on the support of others willing to do a lot of the work for him. His wife left him in 1987 because she felt she had sacrificed enough.
Pollard tells us rather more than we need to know about Blunkett's dogs; he does not tell us enough about exactly how he gets through his work (beyond the fact that he can apparently listen to tapes at twice their normal speed). Officials say that he has time only to absorb what tends to reinforce his prejudices, not to consider alternatives that might change his mind.
At every stage of his life he has heroically confounded those who would put a limit on his ambition. But could he really handle the biggest job of all? It may be fortunate that the question is now academic.
John Campbell's two-volume biography of Margaret Thatcher, 'The Grocer's Daughter' and 'The Iron Lady', is published by Pimlico
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