Blunkett made his bed

The government wants to keep the home secretary's affair out of the papers, but it helped to erode the boundary between public and private life in the first place.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

The details of UK home secretary David Blunkett’s affair with married mother Kimberley Quinn have been picked over in unseemly detail.

From unnamed ‘friends’ we learn that Blunkett fathered Quinn’s two-year-old son, William, and another baby due to be born in February. He reportedly fast-tracked the visa application for Quinn’s Filipina nanny, gave Quinn two first-class rail tickets that were assigned for his work, and used his chauffeur to drive her and her son to his home in Derbyshire. When things began to turn sour, he allegedly harangued her with late-night calls and played loud music down the phone, and arranged for paternity tests to prove that William was his son.

There has been little moral condemnation of Blunkett – nothing about the sanctity of marriage or the ethics of adultery. Instead, it is a nit-picking search for evidence of wrongdoing that has left the home secretary’s job on the line.

Blunkett has been tried by pedantry rather than moralism, with newspapers dredging up old statements he made in support of the family or marriage. The accusations deal with fairly petty stuff. Two train tickets, a trip in the ministerial car that was going to Derbyshire anyway – this is hardly Watergate. And Blunkett claims that he only checked that the nanny’s application was in order, but didn’t do anything to sway or hurry it.

If Blunkett is to fall, it should be on his public record rather than his private shenanigans. This is the home secretary who has presided over a flood of measures eroding our civil and political liberties. In the name of ensuring a ‘speedier, simpler and quality justice’, we’ve seen the limiting of rights to trial by jury, the removal of the double jeopardy rule (which means that a person can be tried twice for the same crime), and the introduction of lower standards of evidence in court. The recent Queen’s Speech showed that Blunkett has no intention of slowing down, with bills providing for identity cards, compulsory drugs testing, and new powers for police officers to arrest suspects or take their fingerprints by the roadside.

The ins and outs of changes in the right to trial by jury should be the subject of public contestation; the ins and outs of Blunkett’s bedroom should not. Yet while Blunkett’s use of ministerial train tickets has been scrutinised, his wide-ranging and intrusive criminal justice reforms have often been reported straight from the press release. It seems that we have our priorities topsy turvy.

Both Tony Blair and Blunkett have tried to draw a line under the affair. Blair rallied to his support, saying: ‘The question is, is something in someone’s private life an interference with their public duty? He has done a fine job as home secretary and I have every confidence in him and whatever the difficulties of his private life, those are part of his private life.’

Blunkett might well attack tabloids’ appetite for gossip, but in this case he has made his own bed. For a start, the affair has been an open secret for the past three years, with holidays in Corfu and joint appearances at parties – in fact, it could be said that until recent revelations the press displayed an unusual level of discretion. And far from keeping the thing private, Blunkett is now taking his battle for access to his children through the courts. Meanwhile, his friends and aides have fed the frenzy with their defences of his corner. By fighting his love affairs in public, it seems that Blunkett himself has lost his bearings and any sense of how a home secretary should behave.

In fact, this government has done more than any other to erode the boundary between public and private life. Blair has long sought to found his public authority on his personal sincerity, with his ‘trust me, I’m Tony’ approach. In policy terms, the notion of a private life seems to barely register on the official radar. Blunkett’s criminal justice reforms, for example, undermine personal autonomy and enable the authorities to keep tabs on us. There has also been a stream of official measures telling people how to bring up their kids, how much they should drink, what they should eat, or how they should have sex.

Britain could use a bit more public scrutiny and a bit more private decorum – and that goes for the statements issued from the dispatch box as well as for the pages of the tabloids.

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Topics Politics


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