Authors: Rosa Prince
INTERVIEWS WITH RETIRING MPS
sixty-seven, was Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside (1987–2010) and Sheffield, Brightside & Hillsborough (2010–15).
‘I’ve never been sucked in, I’ve never thought this is where I’ve got to be for the rest of my life and I’ve never liked the pomp of the House of Commons.’
I knew I wanted to be active, I knew I wanted to change the world. I joined the party that was closest to me in terms of the outlook on life and the values it stood for.
I wasn’t overawed by it. And I haven’t been since. I believe this to be a key working environment, it’s a central cog in our democracy, but it isn’t the whole part of our democracy.
And therefore I’ve never been sucked in, in my view. I’ve never thought, ‘This is where I’ve got to be for the rest of my life; this is the be-all and end-all.’ And I’ve never liked the pomp and the procedures of the House of Commons.
It is a bit of a combination of a museum and a public school. I’ve always wanted to see it modernised. But it’s here and we’ve got to use it.
My high point was walking into the Department for Education and Employment in 1997, no question about that.
In global political terms, being involved in protecting the nation with the counter-terrorism measures as Home Secretary would have been, but that wasn’t really a personal high, that was a job that had to be done.
There’s no question whatsoever that 15 December 2004 [when he resigned from the Cabinet amid a scandal over his affair with a married woman] was my lowest point, personally and politically, because it was both.
I’m still having to handle a delicate situation, which matters more than anything else to me.
I’ve got no regrets about the decisions I took at that time, because they were right, but we’re all, all of us, my family and others, we’re all having to continue to live with it.
I would like to just do other things. I would like to get a bit of a life with the family and friends. I’d like to write, I’d like to speak, I’d like to not quite be so much in the public eye, although I’ll miss it.
So it’s the right time for me. It’s also the right time in terms of public service. Knowing when to go is as important as knowing when to step up.
I’d like to do things in public service. I’d like to do more of the voluntary and community stuff I’ve been doing. The vice chancellor of Sheffield University has invited me to do a lot more with my work with the university, and I’m looking forward to doing that.
And I hope to earn a little bit, if people will forgive an ex-minister in saying so, in order to pay for administrative support and transport, because without both I’m finished. So I’m going to try to do that.
Get a life. Put your personal relations first because it will make you stronger in the political arena. And, if they’ll forgive me, be extraordinarily careful what you put on Twitter and Facebook.
There was little expectation that David Blunkett would go on to have a successful political career, first in his home town of Sheffield and then on the national stage. Born in poverty, he received a ‘sketchy’ education, thanks in part to the blindness he suffered from birth, which led most of his teachers to steer him away from an academic path.
Largely self-educated, he developed a curiosity in current affairs from being read the newspaper by his father as a child; an interest that was sharpened when, at the age of twelve, his father was killed in a work accident.
A year later, his grandfather was taken into a geriatric ward that Blunkett compares to a ‘workhouse’, where he died in ‘appalling’ conditions. Mr Blunkett vowed then that he would devote himself to ensuring others were spared such treatment – a promise he fulfilled when he became head of Sheffield’s social services.
The youngest person in the country to be elected to a local authority, Mr Blunkett began his public service while simultaneously studying for a degree.
I still sometimes think: ‘How did I do that? How did I go to those evening classes when it was throwing it down with rain and other people were out enjoying themselves? How did I even begin to think that I could do the job as a councillor and be a student at the same time?’
Terrifically brave by the local party branch, because here was a young man, full of himself at the age of twenty-two, a student, just starting out on a degree course, and he couldn’t see.
Mr Blunkett would go on to serve on Sheffield City Council for the next eighteen years, rising to the role of leader in 1980.
In 1974, he had his first taste of Westminster politics when he stood as a candidate in Sheffield Hallam:
It was always considered to be a rock solid Conservative seat. I was helping out, learning about myself, and learning the ropes the hard way because everyone knew, ‘Well, give him a go, it’ll knock the corners off him a bit,’ which it did. I was only twenty-six. We knew it was a dry run, there was no chance of getting in.
Four years later, when another local seat became available following the death of a sitting MP, Blunkett was again urged to throw his hat into the ring. This time the seat was a safe Labour one:
I lost the nomination from the Labour Party by one vote. That person, to this day, deserves my dying gratitude because I’d have fallen flat on my face. I wouldn’t have had the terrific experiences I had in Sheffield. I’d have come in [to Parliament] at a time when we were in decline and I’d have had to suffer eighteen years out of office rather than the ten years (that was bad enough) from 1987.
And I think people would have found me quite difficult to take. I think they probably did in 1987 [too].
As leader of the council, Mr Blunkett came to national attention for developing what he describes as a ‘sane left alternative’ to both the Thatcher government and the ‘radicalism’ of Liverpool’s Militant Tendency and the Greater London Council:
We were kind of trying to plough a middle ground before it became known as the Third Way. That got a lot of attention. That attention obviously fell on me as leader of the council, so I dabbled a bit with: ‘Should I, can I, make a difference on the national level more than I can now?’
As Mr Blunkett pondered a move into national politics, fate intervened when his local MP decided to stand down:
I thought: ‘This is it, I’ve got to do it now or I won’t do it at all. I was brought up in this constituency, I represent a council seat in this constituency, if you’re going to do it, now’s the moment, representing somewhere that you deeply cared about, that your heart and your home and your soul really resided in, and for people who mattered a lot, and a city that is my heart, really.’
Once he was selected, his election in one of the safest Labour seats in the country was assured:
It was a safe seat but you don’t take it for granted. If you do, that will rebound on you one day.
I just thought: ‘Gosh.’ I felt the same as I did in ’97 when we were elected and I thought I was going to be Secretary of State for Education and Employment, which was: ‘This is the most incredible privilege’ and ‘Lord, what have I let myself in for?’ So I was both energised and apprehensive at the same time.
Mr Blunkett’s arrival in Westminster coincided with a painful period in his private life, as his first marriage fell apart mainly, he concedes, because he had asked his wife to sacrifice too much to help him achieve his ambitions:
It’s clear now that I put my first wife, Ruth, through enormous pressure. You only reflect on these things when you’re more mature, when you can look back.
I asked an awful lot of her in terms of assisting me in being able to do several things all at once, being leader of the council. I was asking her to read things for me, to check things for me, to do things really that an administrative assistant would do. I hadn’t realised quite the pressure that I’d brought to bear, as well as bringing up our three boys.
And so our marriage broke up – without the kind of acrimony that destroys children; we were very careful.
I owe Ruth a debt of gratitude because we didn’t fall out, we shared the maintenance, we shared the contact and responsibility for them.
Struggling to get used to a new life in London, not least because of the huge added burden of adapting to a strange world as a blind person, Mr Blunkett entered Parliament, wondering for the second time in his life if he had taken on too much:
It [the marriage breakdown] happened virtually at the same time, which was traumatic.
I think … the emotional and the physical often go together, because I was out of action twice in the first year I was in here … [first] with a gallbladder operation, in the days when they used the knife rather than keyhole surgery, then secondly with viral pneumonia, all in nine months.
The upside was, having been out of action for a few weeks at a time, I didn’t quite get up people’s noses. As we were in opposition, and had been for the previous eight years, people were not all that amenable to clever dicks coming in and telling them how to run things.
Mr Blunkett could not, of course, share the near-universal experience MPs say they feel – an overwhelming sense of awe from the very look of the ancient stones as they walk into Parliament for the first time as an elected representative:
Walking into the building was no different to me than walking into anywhere else, other than the fact that there are parts of the Palace of Westminster that have an aura, like old churches do.
Westminster Hall, which dates back to the thirteenth century, does, and when you’re in the bowels of the place sometimes – I’m still discovering places after twenty-eight years that I never knew existed – there is a bit of history.
It’s a major platform and I’ve been very fortunate because I’ve been able to achieve what I’ve wanted to, which was to be in government for eight years.
That was a phenomenal privilege and I feel humbled really to think that I was able to do that, to make a difference, to make those changes.
[But] if we want it to be a museum we should set it up as a museum.
Mr Blunkett’s disability meant he experienced other parts of Parliament differently from his colleagues, particularly the Commons chamber:
I had to learn the lesson very fast that it wasn’t like speaking anywhere else. The atmosphere can change within seconds. You get the speech wrong, you get the tone wrong, and the nature of the place is such that it can pull you down.
I remember Dennis Skinner shouting at a Conservative minister: ‘Your mouth’s gone dry, hasn’t it? You’re going to dry up.’ And you could feel that he was.
I loved debate and I loved answering questions when I was secretary of state. I didn’t like delivering statements because they had to be written, because the print version is put out, and very often statements aren’t finalised until very shortly before you have to stand up and read them.
Braille’s not easy, it’s very difficult. You can’t highlight in braille, you can’t really use capital letters, you can’t underline, and even if you could you wouldn’t have had time to reconfigure it in braille, and that told, I think.
If anyone watches old film, they’ll see me at my most uncomfortable – which probably accounts for the fact that I wasn’t keen to jump up and down at the despatch box at every opportunity.
Within fifteen months of his arrival, Mr Blunkett was invited to become a shadow Local Government Minister:
I don’t think it would be unfair to say that they really wanted me inside rather than out. The old adage in the great factories where I grew up was: ‘If the shop steward is causing bother, why not make him the supervisor?’
This was the time of the poll tax, so having someone on board who knew local government finance backwards and could speak readily without notes about it was helpful, but it also meant that I was on side, and I think that was quite clever really.
I’ve always wanted to be where the decisions were being made. I hated being an outsider. I wouldn’t say I was tamed because … I wanted to be the team leader so I must have been quite a pain, really.
In 1992, following the resignation of Neil Kinnock, Mr Blunkett backed his mentor Bryan Gould for the leadership against the more left-wing John Smith, the latter of whom, after emerging as the winner, ‘magnanimously’ made him shadow Health Secretary.
Mr Smith died eighteen months later in May 1994. By then, Mr Blunkett had come to know two fellow modernisers, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.
Tony called me in and said would I have supper with him at home. And it was quite clear that in the nicest possible way he was testing me to see if I was going to be reformist enough, whether I was a moderniser or a retrencher.
It was an informal interview over a cold supper that Cherie had kindly brought in on her way home from work. I can’t remember [what it was]. It did come from Sainsbury’s.
Inner circles move in and out but once I was clearly on board with the agenda of reform and modernisation then, yeah, I was in the inner circle.
I couldn’t have had a better accolade than him saying at the 1996 conference, ‘I have three priorities for government: education, education, education.’
I said to him afterwards: ‘Blimey, you don’t expect a lot, do you?’
By the time of the 1997 election, Mr Blunkett felt ready to hit the ground running: