Ashley, Jackie, New Statesman (1996)
Let liberals howl and traitors flinch, the Home Secretary is in grimly uncompromising mood
I met David Blunkett the day the government announced a number of measures - probably to include ID cards - to deal with the terrorist threat. Not surprisingly, the liberal left is deeply suspicious, and there is much talk of the government eroding the very democratic values that it seeks to defend. It is this Home Secretary's first major confrontation with the libertarian wing of the Labour Party - and he is grimly uncompromising. Clearly those who wring their hands at the thought of ID cards or harsher extradition policies will get not a shred of sympathy from him. They are, he believes, the moral equivalent of those in the 1930s who allowed the Nazis to triumph in Europe. "I'm a great aficionado of history," he says. "I was deeply affected by seeing the disintegration of any chance of democracy coping with fascism in the Weimar republic, where woolly-minded, well-meaning liberalism actually allowed the forces of darkness to use democracy, to exploit democracy, to overturn democracy."
Are we in a similar situation today? "Potentially so. I'm very mindful of not exaggerating the position, but I think we have to take measures that in no way undermine the rights of individuals living in this country but don't allow those rights to be exploited to the point where they are used against us."
This is the hard message that Labour's truncated party conference will hear from one of the government's hard men. Civil libertarian dissenters can expect short shrift in Brighton. Blunkett insists that the government hasn't made a final decision about ID cards. But he confirms that an examination of how to fund such a system, and the practicalities of implementing it, is "currently in train".
To those - from the Tory right to the libertarian left - who have grave concerns about the idea, Blunkett insists: "There's no removal of basic rights and freedoms; there's no police state in other European countries that have ID cards."
Blunkett, as well as other cabinet ministers, isn't playing down the threat of further attacks, including germ warfare. I ask whether we are, or can be, protected adequately against such assaults, and he replies, honestly, that "the government can only do so much".
He raises the subject of gas masks, saying: "My belief, at this moment in time, is that things like issuing gas masks would not be helpful." However, Blunkett adds that, in the weeks ahead, he will review all possible security measures.
His scorn for "woolly-minded, well-meaning liberalism" extends to those peaceniks who want the United States and its grand coalition to refrain from military retaliation. They are refusing to face up to reality, he believes. "It's no good hiding our head in the sand... on the next occasion they [the terrorists] feel they want to shake the world up and things aren't precisely as they would wish them to be, they will strike against us at any time, in any place. Then people would say somebody should do something." But, he snorts, "they don't like the something and they don't like the somebodies and they pretend it's nothing to do with them".
These are strong words indeed from a politician who, unlike his predecessor, Jack Straw, or the Prime Minister, was a left-wing figure until comparatively late in the Labour Party's modernisation process. Blunkett began his political career as a practically minded but famously leftish leader of Sheffield Council who became a national figure in the fight against spending cuts, and then against Militant. No one in the upper ranks of this government had an upbringing as tough as his, partly because of his long and, at times, lonely struggle with blindness, partly because of the dire poverty into which he was born.
Blunkett is an emotional, sensitive man who, according to a close friend of his, decided only in the past six months that he could be a major player and has gone about seeking such role with a determination that has characterised much of his life. …