I'm so sorry for writing this column

A few seconds of emotion, however bogus, is worth more than hours of party political broadcasts

PERHAPS AT this point, I should set the record straight. There have been mistakes in this column in the past: gaffes, factual inaccuracies, grammatical errors, a lack of respect for my betters, frequent lapses in taste. I could have done better and, believe me, I shall do better in the future. I hope and trust that, now that I have expressed my regret in this open and sincere manner, we can move forward to a better future in which you will find a purer, more accurate and, above all, a nicer columnist. I'm just so sorry.

We all feel better after that, don't we? Because one of the many wonderful things we have learnt in the new political climate is that a little apology goes a long way, whoever you are. The Prime Minister has apologised to the Irish for the potato famine. Bill Clinton has travelled around Africa apologising for that whole unfortunate slavery thing. Paul Gascoigne, Will Carling and Teddy Sheringham have all been terribly contrite about some of the downright careless things they have done. In Australia, the government has even introduced a National Sorry Day, allowing craggy-faced Crocodile Dundee types to get in touch with their caring side by apologising gruffly to members of the indigenous population for certain inappropriate attitudes in the past: taking their land, calling them "Abos", that kind of thing.

In this matter, at least, the politicians are in touch with the mood of the times. They realise that a few seconds of damp-eyed public emotion, however bogus, is worth hours of party political broadcasts. Who could be surprised that, following President Menem's apology last week - said to bear a striking resemblance to Emperor Akahito's semi-apology last year - there is now said to be an Apology Unit working in Downing Street to help public figures (presidents, emperors, even footballers) to present precisely the right kind of contrite public statement.

Presumably the Government's unit has developed an all-purpose statement which, with minor adaptations, can be used on any occasion, along the lines of: "I, the president/the emperor/the England striker, would like to express sincere regret for certain breaches of human rights/the war which took place between our countries/being found blotto at five in the morning in a lavatory with a bargirl. I hope to put the past behind me and, under the beneficent warmth of Britain's new, caring government, look forward to positive future relations with your country/your investors/my lovely wife and kids. Thanks very much, and now can I have those export credits/some nice tanks and aeroplanes/my place back in the England team?"

Not that everyone has learnt how to play the game. Rather touchingly, the Argentinian president seemed to believe that making a public apology involved some sort of genuine regret, and later tried to retract it. More surprisingly, in view of his vast experience in these matters, Bill Clinton had to take several shots at an apology for the Lewinsky debacle before he got it right; the American public, those sophisticated connoisseurs of public humiliation and grief, could tell that he simply was not sorry enough - he hardly even cried, for heaven's sake. Only when he truly grovelled - before his maker, before America, before his wife and child, even before Ms Kneepads herself - was he forgiven by the press.

As a relatively painless way of dispensing with the past, the vogue for apology is unbeatable. It reveals you as a caring human being, a person able to learn from his mistakes. It gives the people a brief, heady sense of their own power. Above all, it costs absolutely nothing and is a convenient substitute for any real action. The point of saying sorry, as any man involved in a relationship will confirm, is to regain the initiative, take the high moral ground, so that, after a decent interval, you can once again get away with anything.

A Sorry Day along the Australian model is surely not enough. Following the success of America's first "National Character Counts Week", surely the time has come for Downing Street to initiate National Sorry Week. Telephone receptionists would be obliged to say: "Hello and sorry, Karen speaking". Jeremy Paxman would apologise to his guests on Newsnight before humiliating them. In school assemblies, a non-denominational prayer of apology would be uttered by children at the start of every day. "I'm sorry, I'm very, truly sorry for things that I have done, and things that I have not done. I have let my parents down, and my school down, but, worst of all, I have let myself down. I just feel terrible about the whole thing. Please forgive me, everyone. Amen."

Then they can all go back to behaving as badly as they like.

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