Friday, February 19, 2010

House Points: What is Kim Howells?

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Perhaps the truth is that, like John Reid, Howells has just been a consistent authoritarian all his life. Hornsey College of Art at the sit-in point at something more libertarian, or am I just being seduced by the glamour of the sixties?

Incidentally, do people still read Kim. They certainly should do. When someone told Evan Davis on the Today programme this morning that India was Kipling's home, he scoffed at the idea. He would not have done that if he had read his best book.

Kim what?

“I am Kim. I am Kim. And what is Kim?” Kipling’s young hero asks himself repeatedly. These days there is an even harder question: What is Kim Howells?

Because today this former student radical and former Communist union official finds himself defending Britain’s intelligence services unreservedly when even many Conservatives fear they have been complicit in the torture of suspects overseas. It’s worse than that: the head of MI5 sounded more reasonable than Howells when when he raised his head the other day.

Last week Howells, who chairs the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), said any such suggestion was “a calumny and a slur and it should not be made”. For good measure he added “I don’t know what the Master of the Rolls is ... playing at.” (In my experience senior judges don’t play much. They tend to be rather serious about things.)

When it was set up, the ISC was loaded with senior parliamentarians so that it would have the clout to hold the security services to account, yet its chairman prefers to act as their cheerleader. (Perhaps they won him over by letting him play with their invisible ink?)

It has been a long journey to reach this lonely position. Howells first came to public notice in 1968 as the student organiser of a sit-in at Hornsey College of Art in North London. He reappeared in the eighties as a Communist research officer with the National Union of Mineworkers in South Wales during the strike of 1984-5 .

He became a Labour MP in 1989 and soon found himself a member of Neil Kinnock’s inner circle. One theory is that he received this rapid promotion because he was the only person who made Kinnock’s sound laconic and crisp in comparison. When Labour came back into government he filled a succession of ministerial positions, and now finds himself, in effect, the spokesman for the intelligence services.

You could say this is a common story: a young firebrand turns into a reactionary. But what story do people like Howells tell themselves. Do they detect a golden thread of principle that has run through their careers or do they prefer not to think about the past?

So the question remains: “What is Kim?”

1 comment:

Frank Little said...

Was also on the Grosvenor Square demo, I believe. He and Howard Marks attended the same school, Mountain Ash Grammar. How their paths have diverged!