Apr 2008 - Why can't this minister say 'sorry I was wrong'?

01 June 2013

CALL me old-fashioned, but I expect government ministers to speak the truth. Equally I accept that every now and again they will get something wrong. That’s understandable as well. But when they do make a mistake, why do they find it so difficult to say, ‘I was wrong, Sorry about that. I apologise’? I’m sure the public would quite warm to them if they did. It could even improve the status of politicians in our society. Perhaps they should do it more often. Kim Howells MP clearly doesn’t agree.

Last month he came out with a quite shocking statement about Justice for Colombia. He was criticised for his association with Colombian General Mario Montoya, who has been named in a US Congressional report as someone with suspected links to private militias (see page 9). In a wild response, no doubt aimed at diverting attention, he accused JFC of supporting the FARC, a revolutionary guerrilla movement. This is utterly untrue. JFC campaigns for peaceful solutions in the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist: 184 were killed in a single year. It is nonsense to suggest that the TUC, 40 national trade unions and half of Labour’s MPs would affiliate to an organisation that backed armed revolutionaries!

I am especially saddened – and annoyed – with Kim because he had every opportunity to become a model representative. He had the shining example of Emlyn Williams, for whom Kim worked as a personal assistant. Emlyn was President of the South Wales NUM during the 1984/5 miners’ strike. I was entrusted with taking the collections made by ASLEF members to Emlyn’s office and was always inspired by him. He was the man who asked, ‘Why should men who risk their lives, who work hard, who produce a commodity essential to British industry, not be paid accordingly? And if the answer is that society cannot afford it then my reply is that society must be changed so that it can afford it.’ He had an idealism, an openness and a commitment to democracy that I hoped might rub off on his former assistant, the current MP for Pontypridd.

Emlyn would not have attacked a legitimate nongovernment organisation in order to save his own skin. He would not have smeared JFC, which campaigns for human rights, workers' rights and the search for peace with social justice in Colombia – and which, crucially, supports and promotes a peaceful politically negotiated settlement. He would not have put in jeopardy JFC’s ability to send future delegations to Colombia , missions that are crucial to legitimising Colombian trade unionism.

Emlyn would have accepted readily that the job of a politician is to work for his constituents and his party.

Being an MP or a minister is not an ego trip that makes you superior: it is a job, a responsibility and a privilege. That includes telling the truth – and admitting with a good grace when you have not done so.

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