Why the Prime Minister needs to repent over child migrants

By Jonathan Bartley
February 24, 2010

Gordon Brown’s apology in the House of Commons today is likely to be met with debate and comment about the extent to which a political leader can apologise for the wrongdoings of another government. It has certainly done so in the past over such issues as the transatlantic slave trade.

Those children, now adults, who suffered terrible abuse under the Child Migrants Programme from the 1920s to the 1960s during which more than 130,000 were sent to former colonies, are likely to value the apology.

When there is talk of apology, our conceptions of justice also tend to lead the focus to punishment for previous offences. Who was responsible? How will they be dealt with? Whilst questions of accountability are important, they miss the big picture. Christian theology helps in this. At the heart of Christian ideas of justice is the idea of atonement, or at-one-ment. This is not about laying guilt and blame, indeed the liberation from such things is the objective. It is primarily about making things right again – as much as they can be.

And this is why the “R” word is also important. ‘Repentance’ is something which many liberals shy away from, and many conservatives misinterpret. In the minds of many it conjures up pictures of flagellation and sackcloth and ashes. In this context it doesn’t at first glance seem relevant, as Brown is focusing attention on something that didn’t happen on his watch.

But this is to miss an important political, as well as a theological point. Repentance is an active process of turning away, literally turning around, and heading in another direction. It is about a change of mindset. If he is apologising as the national leader, for something done by another government, we need to see how that is reflected in the action of his own Government today. In other words, is this Government truly repentant?

The PM’s comments to GMTV this morning rooted his apology firmly in the past. "I have to apologise on behalf of a policy that was misguided and it happened right up until the 1960s," he said. But we might legitimately ask two specific questions that relate to now. The first is "What are you doing to make things right?". The second is: "What are you doing to show that you are heading in a different direction?".

Clearly there is the important issue of reparations for those who suffered. But what about the child migrants who are suffering right now, too? Specifically what is Brown doing about those children detained in places such as Yarl’s Wood?

The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds at the beginning of this month, highlighted a catalogue of harmful effects of child detention. Just last week, the Children’s Commissioner called for an end to the practice.

An apology by the Prime Minister for the actions of a Government in the past may be of value to those who suffered. It will do nothing for the children suffering today as a result of policies over which he presides.

It is not acceptable to leave it to a future Prime Minister to get up in the House of Commons in a few decades time, and apologise for the policies of Gordon Brown.

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