Matthew Norman: The moral squalor that destroyed Blunkett

Mr Blunkett is such a perfect allegory for Labour's development it's almost ridiculous
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The Independent Online

It doesn't take much imagination to guess what Clem would make of the events of the last few days, or indeed the last few years. Spinning in his grave doesn't come close. Also on Tuesday, a channel owned by Mr Blair's guv'nor Rupert Murdoch - not a chap Clem would have found wildly sympathique - showed a compellingly awful movie about a team of astronauts burrowing to the earth's centre, to start the stalled planet (don't ask) revolving again with nuclear warheads. If Nasa had been smart, they could have saved the $20bn it cost to build the vessel. All they needed do was hijack Clement Attlee's coffin as it corkscrewed its way towards the earth's core.

Half a century is a long time in politics, as another Labour PM so nearly put it, yet watching Dr Reynolds's film crystallised with chilling clarity the extent of the collapse in the standards of probity and (God, what a fogeyish word to find yourself typing) decency expected of public figures.

Wheeled out on Wednesday's Newsnight to deliver his usual "it's all a media frenzy" schtick was yet another member of the Blair inner circle to have left under a cloud of farcical humiliation. They couldn't get Byers or Mandelson, so it fell to Alastair Campbell to do the honours, positing that persecuting the likes of Blunkers and Cherie for their tiny errors of fiscal judgement is a modern version of what some rival stars of that night's telly did to the Christians in the Colosseum.

Evidently Mr Blair agrees with this reading. With no trace of Mark Antony's irony about Brutus, and without the flicker of a self-teasing smile at his lips, he borrowed the ear of the Commons to insist, just as he did last time his pal resigned, that David is an honourable man.

Is he? Surely taking a directorship of a DNA testing company and buying shares that might - had he been allowed to leave them in trust for his lads big and little - have quickly increased in value twentyfold or more is the exact moral equivalent of insider trading.

A very recent Home Secretary when he bought the stock, after all, Mr Blunkett had privileged information relevant to governmental and police reliance of DNA technology, and how that might increase in future. He had inside knowledge. And he can hardly claim he was offered the directorship due to scientific expertise, which appears to extend no further than popping into a room, with or without a Braille girlie mag, and producing a sample for analysis.

He cannot have failed to realise that what DNA Bioscience wanted from him was his name. Or more specifically, the increased credibility and improved access to Whitehall that name would supply when, as he never tired of boasting, he imminently returned to government. If those shares did then soar in value, it would be at least partly because a very powerful minister, one famously close to and trusted by Tony Blair, was known to be a former director.

That is more than a naive misjudgement. The willingness to make private money from his status as a public servant (you may recall Mr Blair's "we are the servants now" from May 1997) is an unmitigated disgrace that would, by the standards of personal rectitude practised and demanded by Clement Attlee, disqualify him from holding any public position again.

Mr Blunkett is such a perfect allegory for Labour's development, it's almost ridiculous. Born two years after Attlee came to power, he is as old as the welfare state itself. He entered politics as a decent, well-meaning, Old Testament leftie, happy to spend 18 hours a day in the cause of improving the lives of the poor and dispossessed. And now we find him mixing with the products of the public schools he once promised to abolish, accepting free champagne and free membership at Annabel's, fast-tracking visas for his Ivy League mistress's nanny, flogging his name to private companies for quick bucks, earning half the average annual wage for addressing corporate conferences for half an hour, and so on.

The champers, the chic mistress, the private clubs, they're fine. Nothing is too good for the workers. And everyone changes and mellows, and comes to some accommodation with their principles in the cause of personal ambition. But this is a mutation far out of the ordinary. Politically, privately, morally and socially, Mr Blunkett and the party he joined as an idealistic young man have transformed themselves into everything they used to hate, like hubristic characters in Greek myth.

The only pang of pity I can find for this odious fluffball of self-righteous arrogance, as Nemesis pays her final house call, is in so far as he's a weak-willed, semi-bonkers victim of a culture created and fostered by his dear friends the Blairs. Maybe he came to assume, without being aware of it, that if they could get away with all the nonsense (freebie hols, fraudsters brokering property deals, reversing state policy for £1m donations, doling out peerages and ministerial posts for cash, and the rest of that tired old litany), then it couldn't be corruption at all. If all the greed and the grandeur, the lying and dissembling, are just part of the game, why shouldn't he have a bit for himself?

If he concluded that the standards expected of political leaders have sunk so far as to be invisible, who can blame him? In an age when a Prime Minister's wife merrily smuggles Chinese pearls into Britain without paying the VAT, is it any wonder to hear that same Prime Minister state, with every appearance of sincerity, that Mr Blunkett leaves without a stain on his character?

Fifty years is a very long time, as I say, but even if the Tardis brought them to the present, it's no easier to conceive dear old Clem holidaying as the guest of the neo-fascist Berlusconi than to picture his wife Violet accepting a chauffeur-driven car on the taxpayer on pitifully spurious security grounds.

Vi did feature as a motorist in Dr Reynolds's marvellous film, having said that, driving Clem around the country during the 1950 election campaign. While he quietly talked to people about the infant welfare state, she stayed at the wheel, watching and smiling, but carrying on with her knitting. When they repeat The Improbable Mr Attlee, I'll give it a miss, even though I'd love to see it again. Some things are just too poignant to bear.