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David Blunkett

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Blunkett, April 2010.
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Born blind in Sheffield, England, David Blunkett was first elected as a Labour Party Councillor on the local city council at 22 years of age in 1970. He continued to serve on the same city council for 17 years including a period as leader from 1980 to 1987. At this time Sheffield was known as the "Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire" and Blunkett came to national prominence as the leader of one of Britain's most left-wing local authorities.[1] On Blunkett's watch, Sheffield was declared a nuclear-free zone, a red flag was flown over city hall, and a social transport policy meant that city bus trips were the cheapest anywhere in Britain.[2]

He was first elected as a Member of Parliament (MP) for Sheffield Brightside in 1987 and rose through the opposition ranks to become Secretary of State for Education and Employment after Tony Blair's landslide victory in 1997. It was soon apparent that this was a different Blunkett to the left wing firebrand who led Sheffield council. He fitted seamlessly into Blair's centrist New Labour movement, and at the start of Blair's second mandate in 2001 was appointed Home Secretary. He resigned his cabinet post for the first time following his relationship with Kimberley Fortier and the associated scandals.[3][4] His second resignation came after being recalled by Blair as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and was as the result of considerable conflict of interest problems.[5]

In his time in three different national ministerial positions during the New Labour area, Blunkett became an obvious representation of the authoritarian nature of that administration. He was known for his lack of respect for civil liberties and took an uncompromising line on several social issues.

  • In 2001, Blunkett dismissed "airy fairy" fears about civil liberties as he announced plans to detain suspected foreign terrorists indefinitely without trial. In effect this meant the UK needed to opt out of the European Convention on Human Rights. This caused a backbench Labour rebellion and considerable opposition in the House of Lords. "We could live in a world which is airy fairy, libertarian, where everybody does precisely what they like and we believe the best of everybody and then they destroy us."[6][7]
  • Blunkett further alienated civil liberties group when he was responsible for wide-ranging criminal justice reform in 2003. This included a fundamental change in the law which allowed the admissibility into evidence of a defendant's convictions for previous offences and other misconduct—effectively, for the first time, "bad character" became evidence. At the same time restrictions were placed on defence lawyers to quiz prosecution witnesses on the criminal records of their witnesses.[8]
  • As education secretary, Blunkett proposed that sex education should not be pursued until children have left primary school at age 11, citing his view that childhood should not be compromised by "graphic" sex education.[9]
  • Head of the prison service Martin Narey claimed that Blunkett told him to send in the army to put down a riot at Lincoln prison. "(Mr Blunkett) shrieked at me that he didn't care about lives, told me to call in the Army and 'machine-gun' the prisoners and—still shrieking—again ordered me to take the prison back immediately." Blunkett has since denied these claims.[10]

It is difficult to criticise David Blunkett without commenting on his blindness and his incredible achievement in rising from abject poverty to national prominence while blind. However, his authoritarian views and actions generally negate any sympathy one has for him.