The recent debate about the anti-Semitic (or not) Scarfe cartoon made me think about the increased fashion for public apologies. I have to thank a friend for clarifying my mind on this issue, which does need some discussion. Now, discussion of the matter of apologies and forgiveness is not new. It has been part of Christian practice, for example, for a long time. I’m not a Roman Catholic (believe me, I really am not) but the idea of confession has some psychological depth. When one has offended against the moral code one hopes to live by, one should face up to that fact, express genuine contrition, and make amends. Otherwise you can live in a fog of guilt. I think the Rupert Murdoch apology about the Scarfe cartoon – which essentially says we were wrong and won’t do it again – is a decent response. The idea of truth and reconciliation, originating in South Africa but used to allow other fractured states to move on, requires penitence and recompense.
The modern politicians’ apology is not, however, like that. My mate has suggested that apologies can be categorized into a number of groups. Here goes:
- “I am sorry that you were upset” This implies there is nothing wrong with what I said or did, and it’s really sad that you are so petty minded that you took umbrage.
- “Oops, you caught me out. How can I get out of this with least damage ?” David Ward, the Liberal Democrat MP for a Bradford constituency (code – lots of Pakistani heritage voters) said (again on Holocaust Memorial Day) he felt that “the suffering by the Jews has not transformed their views on how others should be treated”. He now says that he “never for a moment intended to criticise or offend the Jewish people as a whole, either as a race or as a people of faith, and apologises sincerely for the unintended offence which my words caused”. Note that he is not sorry that he conflated Jews with Israel, or equated a foreign policy stance he dislikes with planned mass murder: Daniel Finkelstein has destroyed his position in a brief but delicious rejoinder. And as far as Mr. Ward’s apology goes, penitence, the essential component of the confessional, is absent.
- Suggest your action is a bizarre exception from your normal standards. This is what companies do – key phrase “we are sorry that on this occasion our service did not meet your expectations” – translation, we would like you to think that it is really odd that we were not as utterly wonderful as we usually are. See also John Galliano racist rant when drunk: ‘completely out of character’. Oh, yeah ? In vino bloody veritas, in my view.
- Look at Nick Clegg’s apology for raising university tuition fees after he said he would abolish them. What is he actually saying ? That the policy was wrong, because it was unaffordable – i.e. I apologise for recommending policies I now see were ill-advised (i.e. I was bad at what a politician should be good at) ? That he now realises he shouldn’t make promises unless he can be sure he is able to keep them ? (er, yes) I suspect the truth is somewhere between the two – and that the Liberals were taken aback to be in government after 70 years, where all the undeliverable ‘pledges’ they have made to gain easy popularity now have to be faced. On the other hand, he does look very penitent indeed.
- “If I was wrong, then so were all the other people who did just the same”. This assumes that the rest of the world is picking on you, when your behaviour was no different from everyone else’s. See Lance Armstrong, see MP expense accounts.
- Put things off for a long time – see slavery apologies. Establish an enquiry, ideally one that will go on for years. This is the line used regarding treatment of Mau Mau detainees, Hillsborough, Bloody Sunday
- Don’t apologise at all. This is the line used by the IRA for their actions during the Emergency in Northern Ireland. The explanation for killing Protestants (or Catholics who disagreed with them) is now “how regrettable that such things happen in war”. Contrast with Bloody Sunday above (14 dead in Bogside massacre, 21 dead in Birmingham bombing). Don’t recall any apology by anyone for shooting a school kid on a bus for wanting female education, either. Or a call for an independent public enquiry.
And after you’ve made your weasel apology, you wait while and say the time has come to “draw a line under” the incident and “move on”. See David Laws MP. Took the Chief Executive of Barclays Bank about two years after the crash (in fact, before the LIBOR scandal broke) to come up with the ‘let’s move on and stop being beastly to bankers’ line. Shall we have a sweep on how many months it will take for Chris Huhne to use it ? What is unlikely is that he will reveal the class of John Profumo, who, after being exposed for his part in denying an affair when Minister of Defence, apologised, resigned and spent the remainder of his life working for charity in the East End of London.
Footnote: the appalling errors of the Johnson government of the 2020s led to a plethora of apologies, most of the “I’m sorry you felt that way” variety explained above. It got to the stage of Matthew Parris, a decent Tory, suggesting we could just do with fewer apologies.