Blunkett, David

Blunkett, David
▪ 2002

      Following the U.K.'s 2001 general election, Prime Minister Tony Blair appointed David Blunkett to be home secretary, one of the most senior cabinet positions. Blunkett's sterling reputation amply justified this promotion; it also raised the possibility that Blunkett might eventually succeed Blair as leader of Great Britain's Labour Party. What made this prospect remarkable was the fact that Blunkett had managed to establish himself as one of the U.K.'s leading politicians without ever having been able to see.

      Blunkett, who was blind from birth, was born on June 6, 1947, in the northern England city of Sheffield and was brought up in poverty after his father died in an industrial accident at work. He was educated at schools for the blind, but he turned down a course in training to be a piano tuner and insisted on a wider education. He studied part time at a technical college and did well enough on his exams to win a place at the University of Sheffield, where he studied politics. His passion for politics led him at the age of 22 to become the youngest-ever councillor on Sheffield's city council, and he rose to become the council's leader in 1980. Blunkett belonged to Labour's left wing, a position that helped in his election to the party's national executive in 1982.

      At that time Labour, having lost power nationally in 1979, was badly divided. In the 1980s these divisions came to a head when party leader Neil Kinnock sought to expel a group of hard-line left-wingers. Blunkett sided with Kinnock on this and on a wider strategy for modernizing the party. In 1987 Blunkett was elected MP for the safe Labour constituency of Sheffield Brightside. In 1994 Labour's new leader, Tony Blair, appointed him the party's shadow minister, or spokesman, on education. It was a key appointment, as Blair announced that on becoming prime minister he would make his three top priorities “education, education, education.”

      When Labour won the 1997 general election, Blunkett became education secretary, with the task of raising school standards to match those of other prosperous countries. Blunkett introduced a number of reforms, including requiring schools to provide children up to the age of 11 with a daily “literacy hour” and a “numeracy hour” in order to improve basic skills. Blunkett frequently cited his own disability and impoverished background to argue that all children had the potential to succeed and that no school should be allowed to use the fact that its children came from deprived or broken families as an excuse for bad results. Blunkett's tough strategy was widely praised, although he was not always popular with teachers unions. His promotion to home secretary on June 8, 2001—with a brief to be equally tough in tackling crime, disorder, and threats to internal security—was his reward for having been one of the most successful cabinet ministers during Blair's first term in office. After the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on September 11, however, Blunkett's job looked to be an even bigger challenge.

Peter Kellner

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Universalium. 2010.

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