Page last updated at 09:17 GMT, Sunday, 28 November 2010
Kim Howells on his journey from Penywaun to the UN

Kim Howells
Kim Howells reflects in the programme on his journey from student firebrand to loyal Labour minister

By Gareth Jones
Presenter, Kim Howells - a Valleys View of the World

Kim Howells has no doubt about the highlight of his 21 years in elected politics.

"Chairing a Security Council meeting of the United Nations," he said.

"Not bad for a boy from Penywaun."

That boy from Penywaun stood down as Labour MP Pontypridd after 21 years at the last election, and in that time his often controversial remarks sometimes got him into trouble with his own party.

But he was also a loyal servant of the government, holding down a number of important jobs, including that of a foreign minister, a post he held longer than any other Labour politician.

His parents moved to Penywaun, near Aberdare in the Cynon Valley in 1951. While his lorry driver father, Glanville, died in 1995, his 88-year-old mother, Joan, lives in the same house today.

"There was no better place to grow up," he told me as we walked along his old street.

Kim Howells as a young man
They liked reading about the world... they were always one step ahead
Joan Howells, on her son Kim and his brothers

"It had a reputation as a tough place, which it was, but it was full of wonderful people who worked in the collieries or the big industrial estate at Hirwaun, including my father."

What Howells and his two brothers loved best was the nearness of the mountains, where they could run, climb and fight with rival gangs.

At home the boys were encouraged to read and his mother told me they liked books meant for older children.

"They liked reading about the world. They were always one step ahead."

It was, apparently, a house full of books, people talking about politics and listening to modern jazz; all this on a council estate in the middle of the south Wales coalfield.

The politics and jazz came from his father. Glanville was a hardline Communist who inculcated radicalism into his sons. But his mother was a natural sceptic who told the boys to think hard before swallowing dogma.

"We were encouraged to think for ourselves but Mam and Dad both believed in human rights, equality and standing up for the underdog."

Glanville was also a very practical man, good with his hands.

"He encouraged us to paint and he could fix things.

Kim Howells at the UN

I've always been good at fixing things; I think that's how Tony Blair saw my role as a minister: fixing things

Kim Howells

"I've always been good at fixing things; I think that's how Tony Blair saw my role as a minister: fixing things."

In 1958, having passed his 11-plus examination, he went to Mountain Ash Grammar School.

"Between the education we had in this house and the education I had in the grammar school, it amounted to a superb preparation for the rest of our lives."

In 1965 he was accepted for a place at Hornsey College of Art in London, at the time a very fashionable place to study.

As a boy whose parents had told him from the start he could do anything he wanted, he just took things in his stride.

"I was ready for London. I felt I could out-draw, out-paint and out-sculpt anyone there, as well as out-run 'em and out-fight 'em!"

It took just three years for the cocksure young man from the valleys to make a big impression.

In 1968 he led a dramatic sit-in which directly challenged the college authorities.

It was the first of many subsequent actions and statements that would characterise his career, culminating in his stint in government.

Public profile

His public profile soared when he worked as a research officer with the south Wales National Union of Mineworkers during the 1984-5 strike, criticising the NUM leader Arthur Scargill.

Four years after the dispute ended in defeat for the miners, a by-election saw him arrive in Parliament as MP for Pontypridd.

But I wanted to know if Kim Howells believed that a boy, or a girl, from Penywaun, or from any other working class estate in Wales, could now rise to the heights that he had. His answer was 'probably not'.

"We have not moved enough to a fairer, more equal society.

"In fact, in some ways, we're a society that offers less opportunity to kids like me when I went off in 1965."

Not that he wants to see a return of the grammar school, a system he calls "iniquitous", but he is clear that there is a serious issue that is not being faced.

"I would like to see a system where gifted children did have the opportunity to have that special kind of education I was lucky enough to receive.

"I am not a supporter of the 11-plus, but I am a supporter of some form of education which doesn't seem to be available at the moment."

That is a pretty damning indictment of education policy - Labour's included - since the 1960s.

But it's an honest one, and the kind of statement we have come to expect from the boy from Penywaun.

Kim Howells - a Valleys View of the World is on BBC One Wales on Sunday, 28 November at 2225 GMT - more about the programme

Ex-minister Howells standing down
18 Dec 09 |  Wales politics
Labour MP urges Afghan withdrawal
04 Nov 09 |  Politics
Howells leaves in Brown reshuffle
06 Oct 08 |  Politics
Howells' miners' strike regret
12 Mar 04 |  Wales
Art lover's Howells of protest
31 Oct 02 |  UK Politics


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific