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November 13, 2006

Harry Phibbs on Blunkett's Diaries: The Blunkett Tapes: My Life in the Bear Pit - David Blunkett

Posted by Harry Phibbs

The Blunkett Tapes: My Life in the Bear Pit
by David Blunkett
London: Bloomsbury, 2006
Hardback, £25

A woman preaching is like a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well, but one is surprised to see it done at all.
Samuel Johnson might say the same about this 856 page tome with its detailed account of the Blair Years. This is an impressive effort not just because of Blunkett being blind and all the extra inconvenience and effort that must impose. It is also impressive because in this demanding age of big Government and the mass media it is pretty impressive for a cabinet minister to take on the extra chore of keeping a detailed personal record as they go along.

This is a far more thorough effort than anything that has appeared so far. For the first time we get a comprehensive account of the battles taking place at endless cabinet meetings and the assorted inter-departmental feuding that took place elsewhere. So the sheer scale of this book makes it unfair to dismiss it as a money spinner or a mechanism for settling scores. Future historians will heave it off the shelf as a useful "ready reckoner" of who said what when.

But it is not a great work of literature. Almost every page sags under the weight of whining, dreary self pity (unlike the passionate energetic self pity one enjoys so much in the Alan Clark Diaries.) The weight is added to with dated down-market clichés. He is always complaining about being "cheesed off".

Then it is weighed down even more by frequent contemporary passages in italics analysing what he had said and seeking to retrospectively justify it. Much better to have let it speak for itself.

There is the familiar tale of how a former left wing firebrand ends up fascinated by encounters with the Royal Family. He fondly records his schmoozing with the Prince of Wales. But it didn't always go smoothly. Here he is writing of a meeting in May 2000:

In mid-may, another of our trips to Highgrove, this time for a reception for headteachers. It was very pleasant indeed, except that Lucy rolled in something extremely foul, probably fox dung. We went into the bathroom and did everything we could to get it washed off, but by the time we appeared at the formal event there was still a strong and lingering aroma. I joked with Prince Charles about it, and he said he was very familiar with fox dung - so all was well. Except of course that I had to endure the smell all the way back in the car and it was a day or two before we were free of it.
There is plenty of hypocrisy over criticising colleagues for briefing the press or straying off message. At the local elections this year
Margaret Hodge was criticised for helping the BNP by talking up their prospects. Blunkett discloses he had already warned her about similar remarks a year earlier. In May 2005 Blunkett was Work and Pensions Secretary and Hodge was one of his junior Ministers. Blunkett says:
It is fine for people like Steve Byers, not now in government, to say whatever they think, but for Margaret to start challenging government policy, in relation to race and how we were handling the BNP publicly, is just not on.
Blunkett confides he has been watching with frustration at the craze for better school dinners resulting from Jamie Oliver's efforts. He records in April 2000 when he was Education Secretary:
I had dinner with Delia Smith and her husband to talk about how we might radically improve nutrition and school meals.
He says now:
I wish I had pressed the agenda harder. I had introduced minimal nutritional standards back into school meals but, with the entertaining support of Ainsley Harriott, whom I found to be absolutely superb with children, we could have done more long before Jamie Oliver managed to get school food elevated to a major political issue.
Some passages give a misleading impression through omission. As Home Secretary, Blunkett was accused of applying unfair pressure to prevent Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare being granted parole when Archer was imprisoned for perjury. But while he makes no mention of this in his new book, Blunkett does disclose that he fought off efforts by Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine to strip Archer of his peerage.

Blunkett wrote to Irvine, who was keen to rush through a ban on convicts sitting in the House of Lords:

Dear Derry,

For the very reason you enunciate that we would not wish to be discriminatory against Jeffrey Archer or seen to be vindictive, I do not believe this is the moment to be withdrawing peerages from those who are found guilty or imprisoned.

This is an important book. It may be a selective, unreliable and self interested account of what our masters have been saying behind the scenes. But at least it is an account. However the book has been selling poorly and it is easy to understand why.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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