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Sorry, for what?

2011 April 17
by Paul Vallely

So what exactly was Andrew Lansley apologising for? For the over-hasty nature of his planned changes to the National Health Service? For the fact that his ideologically-driven raft of reforms were not adequately mandated in either the Conservative or the Liberal Democrat manifesto? For the fact that he was a smug middle-class southerner in the last northern fastness of working class radicalism, Liverpool, where the Royal College of Nursing annual conference voted by a humiliating 99 per cent majority that it had no confidence in him as Health Secretary?

No, none of the above. What he was sorry for – and said so no fewer than four times – was his failure to put across how brilliant his ideas were. “I am sorry if what I set out to do has not communicated itself,” he told a select group of nurses, after declining to face the wrath of the full conference. Not even, you will notice, that he failed to communicate. No, it was “what he set out to do” which failed.

Sorry is not the hardest word, as Elton John’s lyric-writer once suggested. In politics it is one of the easiest. But there is sorry and sorry. You can pick very carefully exactly what it is that you decide to be sorry for.

Compare Andrew Lansley’s apology with that of the Spurs goalkeeper, Heurelho Gomes, whose side collapsed after he fumbled a key save in the match against Real Madrid in the Champions League. “It was a mistake and I accept it,” he said afterwards. “This was not my first mistake and I know it will not be the last one in my career”. Commendable candour from a naturalised Cockney keeper who has regularly shown he can lurch from the sublime to the gorblimey. But it will not do him a lot of good. The word is that his manager Harry Redknapp has decided to give him the boot.

So what is the point in owning up and saying sorry? Clearly there are those for whom an apology is a damage limitation strategy rather than an act of heartfelt remorse. “Sorry we got caught” is how many will read the abject admission of wrongdoing by the News of the World when it apologised “publicly and unreservedly” for its phone-hacking. But guilt-free grovelling is not always wrong.

Many mocked Tony Blair when he apologised for Britain’s role in the 1840s Irish potato famine. An apology implies acceptance of culpability, critics said, and Blair could not seriously accept responsibility for wrongdoing a century before. Yet this ritual of penitence had a diplomatic purpose. It smoothed the way in the Northern Ireland peace process which produced an IRA apology which had real meaning and brought to an end the years of killing.

Apologies for events that occurred long beyond living memory can go far beyond the symbolic. For years the Australian government avoided anything more than a statement of “regret” for the nation’s crimes against the Aborigines. From 1910 until 1970 children of Aboriginal mothers and European fathers were snatched from their homes and taken to orphanages, or foster homes, away from their family, community and culture. Many in what became known as the Stolen Generation were abused or raped, or forced into slave labour. The policy was intended to bring about the eventual extinction of the Aborigine race.

For years Canberra feared that saying sorry would open the floodgates to expensive compensation claims. But then Premier Kevin Rudd grasped the nettle and proclaimed a substantive apology. Not everyone accepted it but outside parliament that day brown and white people laughed, embraced and had their photos taken together. A gear change occurred in the country’s race relations. Decades of bitter division gave way to a process of racial reconciliation and practical measures to try to close the gap in life expectancy between the two communities.

Britain is about to be similarly confronted with the barbarism of our past as Mau Mau veterans seek compensation for their sufferings during British colonial rule in Kenya where castration, sexual abuse and beatings were common practice for terrorist suspects in interrogation camps. An honest response is required. As Mark Twain said: “When in doubt, tell the truth”.

Contrition comes from the Latin word contritus which means pulverised or ground to pieces. The grinding agent is remorse and key to that is the blinding light of self-knowledge. The Marxist Dominican Herbert McCabe offered an interesting insight on this. The key Bible story on contrition is the Prodigal Son in which a younger son asks for his inheritance before his father’s death. He squanders it and returns home and announces to his Dad: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”

Contrition, said McCabe, is self-knowledge: the terribly painful business of seeing ourselves as we really are: mean, selfish, cruel, indifferent, infantile. “It is the great characteristic of sinners … that they refuse to accept and believe that they are sinners. On the contrary, they have found all the ways of justifying and excusing themselves. The whole conversation in hell consists of the damned telling each other how it is all a terrible mistake and they should not be there at all..” It is when the younger son sees the truth about himself that true contrition sets in.

Apologies are not about the past, but the present. They are about removing the stumbling blocks to going forward. That is why members of the Jewish community, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, often receive last-minute phone calls from their fellows apologising for some offence in the year just past.

Some apologies, though, just make things worse. Kobe Bryant, America’s highest-paid basketball player, has been in even more trouble than Wayne Rooney in recent days, after calling a referee a “f***ing faggot.” His apology said: “My actions were out of frustration during the heat of the game, period. The words expressed do NOT reflect my feelings toward the gay and lesbian communities and were NOT meant to offend anyone”. But his apology has only upset gay activists even more who say that such innate prejudices are even more dangerous than self-conscious bigotry.

“A stiff apology is a second insult,” said GK Chesterton in the days when stiff carried no ambiguity in polite society.

A few apologies are wilfully provocative. When John Lennon caused outraged in the United States with his “Beatles are more popular than Jesus” remark he countered with: “I apologise, if that will make you happy.” And when another footballer Zinédine Zidane ended a distinguished career with a red card in his final game after uncharacteristically head-butting an opponent, he apologised: “My action was unforgivable, but I can’t regret it.”

But those are the obverse of the political apology which is designed to buy time through dissembling. There is a limit to how often they can be repeated. “When Andrew Lansley addressed us last year,” one nurse said, “we listened to him politely and decided to adopt a wait-and-see policy.” Having waited they have not liked what they have seen.

The sorry strategy will not work a second time, I am not sorry to say.

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