Sunday, December 05, 2004

Public and private lives

Most of the people who are rooting for David Blunkett to keep his job are doing so on the basis that we should maintain a strict divide between politicians' public and private lives. If the people who are using this argument really believe it, then they do not understand how politics works.

To the simple-minded politics is an easy business: you agree a programme for government, you put it to the people in the form of a manifesto, you are elected and you implement that programme. This is the view of politics that Tony Benn and his far-left supporters held in the 1980s. It is the view that the Conservatives, with their promises of doing 101 impossible things on their first day in office, hold today.

Meanwhile in the real world, government is about precisely that - governing. Politicians frequently come to power relatively unencumbered with specific policy proposals. Mrs Thatcher did in 1979: Tony Blair did in 1997. It may even be that not having too many policies is one of the defining factors of a successful political party.

And however many or few policy commitment they have, governments soon find their plans overtaken by events. They have to react to developments that neither they nor the electorate has foreseen. No manifesto will tell them how those developments should be tackled.

So what matters most in office is the character and judgement of ministers. Given that, it seems to me entirely reasonable for us to take David Blunkett's conduct of his private life into account when we are arguing about whether he should be home secretary or not.

We may disagree about the rights and wrongs of what deserves to be called Nannygate. And we certainly do not know everything that has gone on or if both sides are being entirely truthful. But it seems to me that only those who take a willfully naive view of politics can argue that it is none of our business.

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