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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The dead weight of a stubborn politician


"Never apologize, never admit mistakes" is a maxim that many politicians seem to regard as necessary to demonstrate that they are firm in pursuit of their policies. They do not recognize that obstinacy is usually a sign of weakness, not strength.

Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, prides himself on his dogged persistence and adherence to the principles on which he was brought up. This son of a Scottish Protestant clergyman finds it difficult to smile naturally, and his jokes, when he manages to use one, are leaden. His initiatives often seem either thought up at the last minute or opportunistic.

Unfortunately his record for choosing advisers is checkered. They have been chosen for their loyalty to him and his policies. Recently a close adviser was shown by the publication of e-mails between him and another party hack to have advocated the circulation of scandalous rumors about members of the opposition.

This understandably infuriated the opposition and he was quickly forced to resign. The prime minister then sent out letters expressing his regret at the incident, but there were no proper apologies and it took many days before he could be persuaded to make a grudging apology. His obstinate refusal to apologize suggested to some observers that he had a guilty conscience. He must have realized that attempts by one of his closest advisers to blacken the images of the opposition did not square with the ethical principles he advocated. The taunt of hypocrisy did not seem unjustified. The incident also raised questions about his judgment in the selection of his closest aides.

Perhaps the most egregious example of Brown's obstinacy and lack of sensitivity to public opinion has been the way in which the government has treated the grievances of former Ghurkha soldiers who served in the British Army before 1997 when Hong Kong was handed back to China. The Ghurkha headquarters had for many years been in Hong Kong, but is now in England.

The government has argued that Ghurkha soldiers who were based in Hong Kong have no real ties to Britain and should not, therefore, be granted the right to settle in Britain unless they had very long service, or had been awarded a medal for valor, or needed medical treatment as a result of their service. The Ghurkhas thought these rules unfair and discriminatory. They had volunteered to join the British Army and were bound under the terms of their service agreements to defend Britain and go where they were sent. A Ghurkha battalion fought bravely in the British recovery of the Falkland Islands after they had been occupied by Argentina in 1982.

Their cause has been taken up by the glamorous British actress Joanna Lumley. She has done everything she could to get public support for the rights of all ex-Ghurkha soldiers to settle in Britain. The opposition parties and the media have all endorsed her cause.

I have yet to hear of anyone making more than a halfhearted attempt to defend the government policy on this issue. Even those who are calling for immigration into Britain from outside Europe to be further restricted regard the Ghurkhas' grievances with sympathy and think that an exception should be made for them. A motion in the House of Commons backing the rights of Ghurkhas was passed with the help of the votes of, or deliberate abstentions by, members of the Labour Party, but this was not binding on the government, which continued to stick to its refusal to grant the right of settlement in Britain to all ex-Ghurkha soldiers.

Lumley had a meeting with the prime minister and exchanged views on television with the minister responsible, but instead of accepting that the government's position was untenable, Brown continued to stall. His obstinacy in this case has damaged him and his party.

Brown is not, of course, the only obstinate world politician. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair never apologized for taking Britain into the Iraq war on the basis of flawed intelligence. Nor, of course, did President George W. Bush apologize for the way in which he led the U.S. in the Iraq war or for the way in which the CIA was authorized to use brutal methods of interrogation.

Japanese prime ministers have endorsed Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama's apology for Japan's part in the Pacific War, but Taro Aso, the present prime minister, in the past at least, has denied such atrocities as those at Nanjing and he is not known for his flexibility. Japanese ministers have on a number of occasions been forced to admit their mistakes and apologize in a traditional Japanese way. This was no doubt uncomfortable for them especially if the apology was only forced out by critical publicity; still, it was better than sticking obstinately to untenable positions.

Admissions that mistakes have been made will inevitably be pounced on by opposition policies, which are likely to argue that the government has made many other mistakes for which they have not apologized and that the admission demonstrates the weakness of government policies. But an admission of a mistake and an apology is likely to defuse the issue and mitigate unfavorable publicity. Moreover, the public will probably be more sympathetic toward the politician who apologizes than toward the obstinate adherer to policies that are no longer appropriate.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.


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