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Sunday 15 October 2006

We live in interesting times, dulled by sops

MOST excruciating reading and viewing in Britain last week have been the extracts in the Daily Mail and the Guardian from ex-Home Secretary David Blunkett's diaries and a documentary based on them - though the Observer interview with ex-spin doctor supreme Alastair Campbell last Sunday came close.

If people behave like ruthless bastards, is it too much to ask them to accept that they are likely to be unpopular? In these soppy days, apparently it is.

Last week we had Blunkett - who once savaged several of his Cabinet competitors on the record to a journalist - whingeing on and on about the nastiness of the media, the general unfairness of political life and how he could cope only because at bad times Tony Blair would hug him. Campbell, who used to think nothing of destroying half-a-dozen careers before breakfast, confides that he suffered from depression at times. Wailing about the 'phenomenal pressure' under which he laboured during the 'weapons of mass destruction dodgy dossier' imbroglio that led to the suicide of Dr David Kelly, Campbell shared with us that "the blood they smelled was mine". What does he want? Hugs? When he was subsequently whitewashed by the Hutton inquiry, he responded by castrating the BBC.

Blunkett was depressed too. Distraught that his lover, Kimberley Quinn would not leave her husband and stopped him from seeing the child he believed to be his, he inspired a whispering campaign against her in the press, went to law over custody and was upset when the press went after him.

"I felt absolutely lousy, a combination of real depression and physical illness."

He had to resign when it emerged Quinn's nanny's visa had been fast-tracked, was brought back to the Cabinet a few months later and got into trouble and was forced to resign again for not having followed appropriate procedures when he took on some lucrative work.

What doesn't seem to have occurred to either of these depressed people at the time was that if you are in key roles in government, the least you owe the citizenry is to resign as soon as you realise you can't do your job.

Blunkett is making a fortune out of his diaries at the expense of his reputation. He has rightly been greatly respected for his courage in rising to high office despite being born blind and having a horrendous childhood, but the arrogance and self-pity he demonstrates in the self-serving diaries have made him an object of ridicule.

Sample: "I am afraid I shall remember this Labour conference most for the irritation of other colleagues when Tony, in his speech, declared that I had the most difficult job in government. Given the issues, it is true - but, goodness me, his comments didn't half get up somepeople's noses."

He comes across as the Cabinet sneak: "I was just trying to get across to Tony that he should value those who tell him the truth and who are straight and who defend him when no one around is listening."

Here are two of the very few moments of light relief. One was when at an official dinner the queen asked if he would like his meat cut up. "Strange, not because it was not a kind and thoughtful question, but because of the comment she made when I politely declined. 'You know, I often do it for the corgis.'"

Then there was the occasion when he had left some papers on the Cabinet table "and Jack Straw helped me pick them up, saying as he did so: 'You do terribly well.'

"I replied: 'Given that you have a real problem with hearing in one ear, you do remarkably well, too.'

"We both laughed, but it was one of those moments which could have gone so badly wrong."

Being rather deaf is one reason why Straw, Blunkett's predecessor as Home Secretary and now Leader of the House of Commons, asks Muslim women who come to his surgery if they would be kind enough to remove their veils. This has caused deep offence to touchy Muslims. Being blind, it's surprising that Blunkett hasn't also been a cause of grave offence, now that he's taking taxis instead of ministerial cars.

It's just become public knowledge that although it is a condition of their licence that all cab drivers accept guide dogs, a significant number of Muslim cab drivers in Britain are refusing to do so on the grounds that they are unclean.

Instead of prosecuting them, the authorities turned - as it were - a blind eye until one driver rejected the dog of the legal adviser to the Royal Society for the Blind. He was fined £1,400, but was unrepentant. We live in interesting times. Sadly, David Blunkett makes them seem dull.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards