The Blunkett debacle: bad news for democracy
What does any of this all-consuming grubby affair have to do with the business of politics?
The resignation of a British home secretary might be a rare event. But the events surrounding David Blunkett’s fall sum up the overall state of British politics, and give a good idea of what we can expect in the run-up to next year’s general election.
The Blunkett affair powerfully illustrates the current obsession with issues of personal character and sleaze, rather than political principles and policy debate. It reveals how, emptied of content, politics can easily be reduced to an emotional soap opera with the media feeding frenziedly on gossip and titbits. Meanwhile, there is little or no debate on matters of substance. In the week when the news and public discussion was all about Blunkett, two big political issues – the government’s proposed new law on ‘living wills’, and its anti-terrorism legislation – were being squabbled over and decided far away from any forum for democratic debate.
Blunkett’s downfall had nothing to do with his atrociously illiberal record as home secretary, or any of the all-too-many laws he had visited on society.
It was all about personal and petty matters – his affair with Kimberly Quinn, and some emails about her nanny’s visa. Even Blunkett’s recent bunfight with other members of Tony Blair’s cabinet was not about political differences, but concerned his indiscreet criticisms of their personal style and competence. This sort of bickering is typical of all the much commented-upon divisions within New Labour, from the Blair-Brown tension downwards.
The Blunkett ‘scandal’ demonstrated how far the political class has lost any sense of the proper division between public matters and private affairs. Blunkett had a reputation as the straight-faced political hardman of New Labour. Yet, as I pointed out a fortnight ago, throughout this controversy he has behaved more like a cheap and self-obsessed celebrity, willing to parade his most intimate business before the public (1). He could not even restrain himself from talking about his ex-lover and her babies during his pathetic and tearful resignation performance. Much of the media played its part in this little melodrama, giving Blunkett the soft celebrity treatment and reporting his fall as if they were in mourning.
What does any of this all-consuming grubby affair have to do with the business of politics, the contest between competing visions and the struggle for a better society? One of the more remarkable statements of the past week was made by the political editor of the Sun, normally a shrewd and clear-eyed commentator, who observed that Blunkett had to go because it had proved impossible to draw a line under ‘the most spectacular political drama in living memory’. Surely that description could only ring true for those whose memory stretches back no further than a fortnight.
Meanwhile, far away from all this gossip about who-said-what-to-whom-when, we saw the other side of the decay of British political life: the way that important political issues are increasingly decided by unelected and unaccountable bodies.
The House of Commons’ debate about the Bill to enshrine ‘living wills’ in law descended into farce, as MPs tried in vain to discover what exactly the government was proposing. Only very late on was a private letter circulated among MPs in the chamber, which made clear that a secret deal had already been done to amend the Bill in the unelected, unaccountable House of Lords – a deal, moreover, between New Labour’s unelected Lord Chancellor, and the unaccountable Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff. Never mind the arguments about people’s right to a ‘dignified death’, the debacle revealed far more about the thoroughly undignified demise of meaningful democratic debate.
Then, no sooner had Blunkett departed office than his old adversaries among the unelected, unaccountable law lords ruled that New Labour’s anti-terrorism laws, passed in the wake of 11 September, infringe the human rights of foreign suspects who have been held for up to three years without charge or trial. This is typical of the way that more authority is now being invested in the hands of judges and other state or quasi-state authorities. Whatever we think of Blunkett’s draconian anti-terrorism laws, the wider trend for power to move from the political to the judicial sphere should be seen as even more dangerous.
As home secretary, Blunkett epitomised the way that political debate has been emptied out and narrowed down into a contest to see who can come up with the most dramatic law-and-order stunt. It was somehow fitting that the last such initiative he was due to launch the day he resigned was a crackdown on a new ‘wave of knife crime’ which, as Brendan O’Neill explains elsewhere on spiked, does not actually exist (see Knife culture? Cut the crap). The way that Blair and Blunkett have managed to restrict the terrain of legitimate political debate was also well illustrated this week, when Michael Howard’s Tory Party agreed to support New Labour’s ID card plans for fear that they might otherwise be accused of being soft on crime.
The Blunkett affair has demonstrated once again the damage that these degenerate trends are doing to the public standing of politics in Britain. Once you turn the political contest into a strict test of personal character and behaviour, even the apparently most strait-laced leader is likely to come a cropper in the end. Blunkett’s fall amid allegations that he misled the nation has inevitably raised yet more worries about the issue of trust, and the degree to which a growing cynicism about public life is leading people to drift away from politics in general and the government in particular. That does not mean that the Tories will win the election. But it does mean that New Labour strategists are worrying about losing ground, without the other parties needing to make much headway themselves.
Far more importantly for those of us who want to see real change, the Blunkett debacle highlights the need for a fresh political debate about liberties, choice and the coming election.
True, on the evening that Blunkett resigned, the BBC Ten O’Clock News had 7.4million viewers, one of its highest figures of the year. But that only goes to show that you can generally find an audience for a televised soap opera complete with sex, tears and intrigue. Whether reducing politics to low melodrama can engage people in an election campaign debate about the future of our society is another matter entirely.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
(1) I’m the Home Secretary…Get Me Out of Here, by Mick Hume
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