The art of the political apology

November 27, 2020 0 Comments

Most politicians are egotists.  (All right, I can think of a few exceptions, but as a general rule the proposition stands.)  The bloodstreams of those who reach positions of real power contain dangerously high levels of egotism, or they would not have succeeded as they have.  One of the results of such self-regard is that politicians are extremely reluctant to admit that any of their decisions or behaviours are wrong.  Those like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, who are not simply egotists but out-and-out narcissists and autolators, have never been known to admit to being wrong about anything important.  Their usual way of responding to accusations of wrongness is to evade and to lie.

There are several ways for a politician to own up.  One is to resign.  Giving up a ministerial post loses you a salary, diminishes your status, and may damage your prospects of advancement.  Still, resigning used to be quite common.  Older readers will remember Lord Carington, who resigned as Foreign Secretary in April 1982, taking personal blame for his department’s failure to foresee and forestall the Argentinian invasion of the Malvanas/Falklands Islands.  He didn’t blame his admirals or his civil servants, he just walked.  Nowadays, resigning from ministerial office is out of fashion.

Short of resigning, the most painful way of admitting you’re wrong is to make an apology.  Most politicians would rather go through the fires of hell than apologise.  Saying sorry opens gaping holes in a carefully constructed (public and internal) self-image of rightness.  It also opens the apologist to the charge of inconsistency: who will believe me if there’s the prospect I’ll have to make another apology for getting it wrong in future?

So, if you’re on the back foot for any reason, standing your ground and avoiding an apology is the best tactic, at least in the short term.  It was the one used by Dominic Cummings in his infamous Rose Garden performance.  The next best course of action, if you do find yourself under pressure to say sorry, is to make an apology that is not an apology.  That is, on the surface, and to the lazy listener, what you say may sound like an apology, but in fact it’s not, and can easily be dismissed if anyone tries to hold you to it in future.  The great advantage of the non-apology is that it appears to signify remorse, but carries no subsequent risk of being held politically or legally responsible for your decision.

Last week the current Home Secretary, Pritti Patel, gave exactly this form of apology after the UK government’s adviser on ministerial standards of behaviour, Sir Alex Allan, found that she had breached the ministerial code by bullying civil servants, in three different departments of state.  This is how she expressed what she called her ‘unreserved apology’:

I am sorry that my behaviour in the past has upset people. It has never been my intention to cause upset to anyone. I am very grateful for the hard work of thousands of civil servants who help to deliver the government’s agenda.

I care deeply about delivering on the commitments we have made to the people of this country and I acknowledge that I am direct and have at times got frustrated.

It’s a carefully crafted statement.  Patel admits that she may have been ‘direct’ and ‘frustrated’.  But the implication is that such a reaction was understandable given the urgency of her mission and (unstated by her, but mentioned by Allan in his report) the conservative attitudes and ‘lack of responsiveness’ of civil servants.  She is not admitting she bullied anyone.  Her only apology is that she ‘upset people’.  Far from a sacking offence, this, she implies, is a positive virtue.  And then she qualifies even this limited confession by claiming that she didn’t intend to ‘upset people’; her behaviour was simply a side-effect of wanting to do the right thing.

The issuing of this statement, combined with some curious statements in Allen’s report – notably that her bullying, though real, may have been ‘unintentional’ – opened the door to Johnson’s dismissal of any action to discipline Patel, and his urging Tory MPs to ‘form a square around the Prittster’.

Patel is an experienced issuer of non-apologies.  Asked at a press conference in April 2020 whether she would apologise for the government’s failure to supply the NHS with adequate PPE (personal protective equipment), she said, ‘I’m sorry if people feel that there have been failings.  I will be very, very clear about that.  But at the same time we are in an unprecedented global health pandemic right now’.  This formulation comes close to expressing pity for the poor fools who imagine that there have been any failings.  Patel then covers herself with the excuse that the crisis is ‘unprecedented’ – her implication is, ‘could not be planned for’, and ‘global’ – shorthand for, ‘those foreigners have had exactly the same problems’.

Incidentally, if you hear the phrase ‘unreserved apology’ in a political apologist’s statement, take a look at the small print and you’re sure to find a reservation or two.

(There is another kind of apology that is entirely safe for a politician to utter.  That is the apology for historic wrongs done by one’s country against a whole group of people.  It was a favourite of Tony Blair.  In March 2007, two hundred years after the passage of the act that banned the slave trade (but not slavery), he ‘apologised’ for Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.  This had the advantage of burnishing Blair’s moral credentials, at no cost to him or his government.  Unfortunately it was a meaningless statement, unaccompanied as it was by any restorative action. Much the same could said of the prostration of Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury in 2019, in ‘apology’ for the Amritsar Massacre a hundred years earlier.)

Why has the resignation become so rare and the non-apology so common?  The explanation must lie in a profound change, during the last decade or so, in the culture and standards of political behaviour, in the US and in Westminster.  Here, Johnson and his fellow populists have realised that they can push the British ‘winner takes all’ system to its limits and beyond.  We’re unlucky enough to combine an undemocratic first-past-the-post voting system with a lack of constitutional checks and balances on any government, and there’s little to prevent our rulers from governing with little or no accountability, or sense of responsibility.  Lack of responsibility mutates into lack of shame.  This is why lies are commonplace, resignations scarce, and apologies few and false.  In short, they know what they can get away with.  And it works – few people seem to regard their behaviour as abnormal.  Despite numerous clear examples of incompetence and corruption, notably in Covid appointments and contracts, Johnson’s Tories are still more popular than any other party in the UK.  No need for anyone ever again to apologise and mean it.

Is this a permanent change, a new way of doing politics, or an aberration?  It’s hard to know. But it’s interesting to note that in the ‘devolved’ parts of the UK, which have a more rational politics and a healthier political culture, it is still possible to make an apology and mean it.  Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon (and a leader with little sign of a large ego) apologised in August 2020 for downgrading school students’ exam results: ‘despite our best intentions, I do acknowledge we did not get this right and I’m sorry for that’.  Simple, (almost) unreserved and honestly meant.  It’s not difficult to do, and it improves rather than diminishes your standing in people’s eyes.

Leave a Reply