Saturday, 27 February 2010

UK: 'Sorry'

Or time for radical change?

The United Kingdom does not elect its governments for fixed terms. There is a maximum term before a new General Election must be called but within this it is up to the Prime Minister of the day to go to the Queen and initiate the process that will lead to the next one.

The present government's time will be up in May. A General Election could be called any day between now and then, perhaps at only a couple of weeks' notice. Not surprisingly, therefore, national politics are now even dodgier, more suspect, than they usually are. Nothing that the politicians do or say is accepted at face value (even less so than usual).

Dodgy and suspect political act of this last week (though to be unwontedly fair, this was pereannounced in November), was Prime Minister Gordon Brown's public apology to the child migrants on behalf on the British nation, along with financial compensation. That is, he apologised on behalf of me and will give some of my money, neither of which actions his Government was elected for nor, as far as I recall, was this debated in Parliament.

I have nothing against the child migrants' cause, and that it was just one sin amongst so many does not mean that it was felt any less keenly felt by its victims. I would feel happier with a better quantified profit-and-loss evaluation of the whole child-emigration project ( I mean in human, not financial terms) and I would have appreciated a better evaluation of why this sin is now offered public priority. Perhaps I feel (again) that someone is trying to manipulate me for political ends. Perish the though.

The British media have been distinctly underwhelmed by all this and have said much the same as I and, I suspect, most of those who have given a moment's thought have felt about this business. Here are a couple of examples, one from the right and one from then left political wings of the serious press. I leave you to guess which is which.

First, Gerald Warner in the Daily Telegraph

...Mr Brown has succumbed to a very modern tendency. In the old days, the maxim of politicians was "Never apologise, never explain", variously attributed to the Duke of Wellington, Disraeli and a number of other possible contenders. (Some purists insist it was uttered by Admiral Fisher in the variant form: "Never explain. Never apologise.") Now, the vogue is for pointless apologies for events in the remote past, made by people who were not the perpetrators. When the heat is on, the conventional wisdom now holds, divert attention from your own blunders with an apology for the Norman Conquest, or whatever. Nobody did this kind of pseudo-apology better than Tony Blair: his glistening, Bambi-eyed sincerity as he apologised for the Irish potato famine, or Britain's role in the slave trade, was the stuff of which Oscar nominations are made. But he defiantly refused, at the Chilcot Inquiry, to apologise for the Iraq War, which actually was his responsibility.

Blair belonged to the Clinton school of feeling other people's pain, while evading responsibility for one's own conduct. Outside of politics, one of the worst offenders has been the Catholic Church: Pope John Paul II issued more than 100 apologies for events in which he had no conceivable involvement, including the Crusades and the trial of Galileo. ... would be preferable if individuals and institutions renounced the archaeology of contrition and addressed their present-day delinquencies. Historical apologies, rather than appeasing public opinion, now provoke derision. As implacable nannies used to tell their charges: 'Mr Sorry comes too late.

Warner, G. (2010) Sorry, Gordon Brown, but these apologies provoke derision. Daily Telegraph, February, 25 February

Secondly, Kristen Rundle in the Guardian

Today Gordon Brown is expected to apologise to my grandfather, Joseph John Rundle. Joe was among the thousands of British children taken from their country and sent to Australia under the child migration scheme. When in 1934, aged 13, he boarded the ship Jervis Bay, bound for Pinjarra, in the west of the country, the scheme was being publicised as a great opportunity for poor and orphaned youngsters. A four-page advertising spread in The Times in June 1934 depicted miserable children in British slums next to happy faces on the docks, with the caption 'Good-bye to all that!'

The reality, as we now know, turned out to be very different....

My family's story, and that of many others, offers obvious lessons for practitioners of child welfare, social policy, psychology and many other disciplines. But the child migration story also offers some important insights into how the law addresses our most vulnerable. Lessons that infuse my own academic work, three generations later. Although it authorised the removal of thousands of British children to the far corners of the earth, the Empire Settlement Act 1922 actually says nothing whatsoever about child migration. Instead, its most vulnerable subjects are effectively invisible, something to be delegated without mention to the administrative sphere where agreements as to their fate were brokered with the voluntary child migration associations.

Yes the child migration scheme might have been dreamt up with some worthy intentions. But those behind it failed to understand that connection to family and identity, and being regarded as deserving of choices in life, are values too great to measure. If the measure of a civilised society is how it treats its most vulnerable, the lessons of these past failures must be brought to the way that our laws and institutions address the vulnerable today. Apologies are a time not only for recognition, but for putting a mirror to ourselves and our current practices.

Rundle, (2010) Apology to a lost generation, Guardian 25 February

Action soon?

Two rather different stances, but common concluding thoughts:
  • If the measure of a civilised society is how it treats its most vulnerable, the lessons of these past failures must be brought to the way that our laws and institutions address the vulnerable today. Apologies are a time not only for recognition, but for putting a mirror to ourselves and our current practices. (Rundle)
  • it would be preferable if individuals and institutions renounced the archaeology of contrition and addressed their present-day delinquencies… 'Mr Sorry comes too late'.(Warner)
In November last year Conductive World carried four postings on the apologies around child migration, directing such sentiments rather nearer home. Thus –

The time to say ‘Sorry’ about something, surely, is when you have had a hand in bringing a situation about, or have stubbornly maintained it, especially when something is still happening now, when you really do feel for the situation, and when ‘Sorry’ is just one tiny, verbal step in the far more meaningful process of doing something to right the wrong and improve the lot of poor suffering humanity?

Can anyone out there think of such situations today? What about, around the globe, the continuing official policies towards children and adults with physical disabilities, their parents, families, and carers?

In the United Kingdom this means the populations currently accounted under the rubrics of ‘special needs’ and ‘inclusion’ (different countries use different terms, at different times). The terminology is not the issue here, but the human and social realities. Does anything written above, about child emigration of the past, ring a bell about the human and social realities of those now touched by special needs and inclusion?
  • deceit, lies and official neglect
  • not exactly a thought-out government policy
  • originally dreamt up by charities
  • of an ideological bent
  • poor, awkward, neglected, cruelly treated, or just plain unlucky
  • families powerless in the hands of an established system
  • often actively misled
  • certainly remarkable personal success stories
  • so many horror stories
  • duped and dumped
  • without a care
  • unaccountable administrative machines
  • high-moral-ground ideologues
  • human heartbreak en masse
  • bureaucratised disposal of human beings
  • be sad or ashamed,
  • particularly, learn
This continued...

There is nothing extra to be gained from ‘Sorry’ if you care, you listen, you understand, you communicate, you feel, and above all, if you try to do something to change things. In a word, if you love.

No doubt Mr Brown means well for the child emigrants. No doubt he means well for children and adults with ‘special needs’, their parents, families and carers. I doubt, though that he will be saying ‘Sorry’ to them,
either on his own behalf or on behalf or Government. To do so would acknowledge a problem now, one that has to be solved. Better pick on one that is safely out of the way in the past and across the oceans...

Fast-forward some forty years. What cold comfort will there be if some future Prime Minister and Government should apologise for the wildly misguided and dysfunctional policies and services, and sheer bloody-mindedness of the special-needs ‘systems’ of today?

Wind back to the present day, what if some Prime Minister and Government should apologise, admit responsibility now?

In 2050 saying ‘Sorry’ for these past sins would be ‘leadership’ in the way so often meant today by that unfortunate word, in all sorts of walks of life: bureaucratic pusillanimity.

In 2010, that would be leadership of  Churchillian scale.

Sutton, A. (2010) Deceit, lies and official neglect, Conductive World, 15 November

Or do we just need a Royal Commission?

1 comment:

  1. Yes (to the Royal Commission).

    And I like your "sorry" bullet points very much.

    No, there hasn't been a lot of enthusiasm about the election.

    In Australia, on the other hand, there will be a Federal and several State elections, and some of the coverage is fever pitch.