This was not just another British farce
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 18 December 2004)

In the future, how will he tell his story? How will he explain his foolishness? The resignation on Wednesday of David Blunkett, Tony Blair's home secretary, sent me to my file on narrative therapy, a style of psychiatry built around personal life stories.

Michael White and David Epston outlined this technique 14 years ago in their book, Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. It's since been developed by a cluster of psychiatrists who speak of "narrative-based medicine" and the role of story-creation in psychotherapy. They look for "narrative competence" in their patients, arguing that those who can describe their lives are on the way to mental health.

These doctors would find David Blunkett an exciting patient. He knows stories; in fact, he's a great story himself. Born blind, raised in wretched poverty and unspeakable isolation, he's conquered everything but his own errant yearning. He's made his 57 years on this Earth into a saga of astonishing valour and, recently, absurdity. Now his life is out of shape, his personal narrative in pieces.

A divorced father of three grown sons, he wrecked his political career through a three-year love affair with a married woman, the publisher of the Spectator. He believes that both her young son William and her unborn child are his, but since she ended the affair, she's cut him off from William. Their relationship was revealed in public when he began petitioning for access to the child.

His story, a tabloid melodrama since August, turned into a political tragedy this week when it was confirmed that he had used his position to hurry his lover's Filipina nanny through the visa system. So he retreated to the back benches, surrendering one of the three most important jobs in British politics.

Having risen so far, he had a long way to fall. Few politicians have ever come to high office from such a distance. At the age of four he was sent off to the loneliness of a boarding school for the blind. His father died when he was 12, but somehow Blunkett and his widowed mother found a way for him to get an education and connect effectively with the sighted world. He became a Dickensian hero, emerging from squalor and deprivation, beating the odds.

Reading and writing Braille, getting others to read to him, he ended up with an honours degree from Sheffield University, in the process developing a prodigious memory. He even taught himself to absorb sound tapes played at double speed, so that he could keep up with material on cassettes. He was elected to Sheffield city council at 22, its youngest member ever, and 10 years later was council's leader, reshaping local politics in his own left-Labour image. He became an MP in 1987, shifted to the right, and in 1997 was named education secretary in Blair's first government.

Blunkett showed no patience for schools with relaxed standards. He never forgot something his youth taught him: Easygoing education works against the poor, because disciplined training may be a poor child's only escape from poverty.

In the home office he had a way of putting honest reactions and common sense ahead of official decorum. His tough line on police work grew from his belief that the poor "see more clearly and feel more deeply than the rich" the effects of illegal immigration, antisocial behaviour that goes unchallenged and "a criminal justice system that sometimes seems to be a conspiracy against victims."

Last winter, Blunkett admitted that he celebrated after hearing that Harold Shipman (the doctor who murdered more than 200 patients) committed suicide in prison. From a great height The Economist pronounced: "Home secretaries should not welcome prison suicide." In April the immigration appeals commission released an Algerian terrorist on bail, ruling that the harm jail was doing to his emotional health was more important than the threat he posed to Britain. Blunkett called that decision "extraordinary" but speculated that others might describe it as "bonkers." The Economist suggested he choose his words more carefully. But he went on in his own way, till carelessness brought him down.

This was not just another British adultery farce. Everything about Blunkett is exceptional, above all the soaring ambition he exhibited from his earliest years. Dealt a miserable hand, he nevertheless imagined he could rise above it and write his own redemptive narrative. Despite everything the world has learned about him this year, his unprecedented accomplishment stands as a triumph of the imagination over what most people accept as reality.

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