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UK Politics

David Cameron and a history of political apologies (and non-apologies) by past by UK prime ministers


David Cameron today expressed his condolences for a “deeply shameful” episode in British colonial history but stopped short of making a formal apology for the Amritsar Massacre in 1919.

Here we recall other political apologies (and non-apologies):

February 20 2012 – Amritsar Massacre

An inquiry commissioned by the Raj colonial authorities found that 379 people died in the public gardens of Jallianwala Bagh, though this figure has been widely challenged by Indian sources, who put the death toll at 1,000 or more.

India has never received a formal apology for what took place.

In 2005, then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw visited the memorial and wrote: “This was a terrible occasion in which so many innocents were slaughtered: and for which I feel ashamed and full of sorrow. Thankfully, so many Punjabis now live in the United Kingdom in peace and harmony, and our two countries today enrich each other.”

In 1997, when Queen Elizabeth visited, she said: “It is no secret that there have been some difficult episodes in our past...But history cannot be rewritten, however much we might sometimes wish otherwise. It has its moments of sadness, as well as gladness. We must learn from the sadness and build on the gladness.”

The killings were described as “monstrous” by Winston Churchill as War Secretary in 1920.

February 6 2012 – Mid Staffordshire NHS scandal

The Prime Minister apologised to the families of up to 1,200 patients who died in Staffordshire hospitals after the Francis report highlighted the appalling neglect of patients. David Cameron said he was “truly sorry” for the failing in a Commons statement.

December 12 2012 - Murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane

David Cameron say he was “deeply sorry” after the findings of the Da Silva report highlighted the extent of state collusion in the murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane. But refused to grant the public inquiry Mr Finucane’s wife Geraldine demanded. Mr Finucane was shot 14 times by loyalist gunmen in 1989.

September 12 2012 - Hillsborough disaster and subsequent cover-up

David Cameron offered a “profound” apology to the families of the 96 Hillsborough victims for the catastrophic mistakes that led to their deaths, the attempts to suggest that Liverpool supporters were to blame for the tragedy, and the 23-year wait to establish the truth.

January 2011 – Iraq war

Tony Blair stopped short of a full apology for leading Britain into the Iraq war but did say he “regrets deeply and profoundly the loss of life” during and after the 2003 Iraq war.

The UN Middle East peace envoy wrote in his memoir, The Journey: “I can’t say sorry in words. I can only hope to redeem something from the tragedy of death, in the actions of a life, my life, that continues still.”

June 15 2010 – Bloody Sunday

Cameron apologised on behalf of the UK government after the Savile Report pinned the blame for Bloody Sunday on British soldiers who shot dead thirteen marchers on 30 Janaury 1972 in Londonderry .

In a Commons statement, the Prime Minister said the inquiry had proved none of the casualties posed any threat to British troops.

“What happened was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong,” he said. “What happened should never have happened”.

February 2010 – UK role in sending child migrants to former colonies

Gordon Brown expressed Britain's “shame” for sending tens of thousands of poor children to former colonies where many suffered terrible abuse.

The Prime Minister apologised for the “cruelty” of the child migrants programme, which saw an estimated 150,000 children aged as young as three separated from their parents and shipped off for what was supposed to be a “better life”.

He also announced the creation of a £6 million fund aimed at restoring families that were torn apart by the scheme, which ran in various forms from the 1920s to the 1960s.

September 2009 - Alan Turing’s treatment

Gordon Brown issued an apology to a Second World War code-breaker Alan Turing who committed suicide after being found guilty of gross indecency with another man in 1952.

The Prime Minister said Mr Turing, who took his own life in 1954, had been treated “inhumanely” and paid tribute to his work cracking the German Enigma codes. Mr Brown also said thousands of other gay men convicted under laws prohibiting homosexual relationships had been treated “terribly”.

June 2009 - Section 28

David Cameron apologised for Section 28 - an  infamous law introduced by his party that outlawed the promotion of homosexuality in Britain's schools – and described the legislation as “offensive to gay people”.

March 2008 – Economy

David Cameron as leader of the Conservatives apologised for his failure to spot that Britain was lurching into an economic crisis despite Gordon Brown being in charge of Britain's finances at the time.

March 2007 – Slavery

Tony Blair received criticism from some quarters when he expressed his “sorrow” over Britain’s role in the slave trade but stopped short of a full apology. The following year he used the word “sorry”.

“I have said we are sorry and I say it again,” said the Prime Minister after talks with Ghanaian president John Agyekum Kufuor.

June 2000- Guildford Four miscarriage of justice

Prime Minister Tony Blair apologised to the 11 people wrongfully imprisoned for the IRA bomb attacks in Guildford and Woolwich in 1974 which killed five people. Paul Hill, Gerry Conlon, Patrick Armstrong and Carole Richardson spent 15 years in prison before the convictions were overturned by the Court of Appeal in 1989.

June 1997 - Irish Potato Famine

Tony Blair issued a statement marking the 150th anniversary of the famine but was careful not to apologise for the famine.

The Prime Minister said: “We must not forget such a dreadful event.”