David Blunkett: The tensions of a globalised world are close to home

WE face a moment of rapid change that is unprecedented in our history. There is economic, social and cultural change. We face an explosion in communications that brings globalisation and issues on a moment-by-moment basis not just into people’s front rooms, which we used to say in relation to television, but into their hands as they use mobile technology. The immediacy of such issues has changed how people see the rapid change in the world around them.

When we were in a position of economic success, with continuing growth, continuing substantial falls in unemployment and rises in wages, and when it was possible to invest in improved public services, globalisation appeared to be benign, if not somewhat bewildering, to the populace.

The same is not true at a time of deep austerity, with the results of the global banking meltdown – and it was a global banking meltdown; the previous Labour government were not responsible for the collapse of the sub-prime market in the United States or the recession across Europe.

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It is risible that people still repeat that calumny over and again, particularly members of the Liberal Democrats who were enthusiastically in favour of the public spending that we were engaged in before 2010 and suddenly changed their mind.

Indeed, so was the Conservative party, because until autumn 2008 and a change of mind at the Tory party conference, the main thrust of public expenditure was supported by the Conservative Opposition.

I mention that because the confusion, bewilderment and sense of powerlessness that affects so many of our constituents has a knock-on effect on the way they see the political environment around them, and on whether they trust or believe that traditional politics can meet their needs – hence the rise of the UK Independence Party and its temporary, God willing, success in the European Union elections and some local government contests.

Old certainties have gone and people are unclear who they should blame for what is happening around them. Is it a change in the world situation and the insecurities that drive asylum seekers and movements of people across the world?

Ten and a half million people have been moved outside their homeland either compulsorily or through fear of the danger of death and torture. People are desperately looking for a better life.

One great advantage of being a backbencher is that one has the chance to read. I have been reading the biography of Roy Jenkins. Fifty-five years ago, he was talking about the challenge of whether we should enter what was then the European Economic Community. He talked about a bigger issue of people living in an atmosphere of illusion or reality, and the unwillingness to address Britain’s position in the world.

He spoke about a challenge of living in a sullen and incomprehensible environment in which people looked only to the past.

I fear that we are in that moment once again. People hanker for a past that did not really exist, and they look for certainties that are no longer there. They fear that politicians do not have answers to their questions, and they lash out at anyone near them. I think we must try in our own way across all three major political parties to provide answers that are credible.

People will be aware of the considerable tensions that have arisen in Sheffield after a large influx of people from Slovakia of a Roma background. They are fleeing unbelievable persecution and standards of living that are third world, to say the least. Incidentally, Slovakia managed a turnout of only 13 per cent in the European Union election – I do not think that is a functioning democracy. People come to the UK from that background and those norms of living, and as part of the debate about British values and a society that can address those challenges, we need to invest in and help people through those difficulties.

That applies to both the host community, which suddenly finds its way of life affected dramatically, and incomers who need to learn quickly how best to adapt to and adopt the standards of behaviour and norms that we take for granted.

Those big issues require us not to provide simplistic soundbites but to address the underlying complexities. I appeal for us all to come together to address those things that are practical and can be addressed. In essence, we are dealing with the transitions of life – transitions that are brought about by economic, social and cultural change globally, and those that affect people in their daily lives as the language and the vista and nature of the community around them changes.

We must consider how 
best the Government, and therefore politics, can assist 
in that endeavour.

David Blunkett is the Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough who spoke in the Queen’s Speech debate on Home Affairs. This is an edited version.