The art of saying sorry

In Brighton on Tuesday, Tony Blair delivered an apologia - rather than the genuine apology favoured by history. By<i><b> Allan Massie</b></i>
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The Independent Online

"Never explain: never apologise.'' The sentiment is attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, and, though it may run counter to the Biblical adage, "a soft answer turneth away wrath'', is usually good advice for politicians. At least it was till recently. Now, in the age of Oprah, apologies are thought to be in order. Say "sorry'' and all is forgiven. So, in Brighton on Tuesday, Tony Blair seemed for a moment to have apologised for taking us to war against Iraq on a false prospectus. Well, sort of apologised, anyway.

"Never explain: never apologise.'' The sentiment is attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, and, though it may run counter to the Biblical adage, "a soft answer turneth away wrath'', is usually good advice for politicians. At least it was till recently. Now, in the age of Oprah, apologies are thought to be in order. Say "sorry'' and all is forgiven. So, in Brighton on Tuesday, Tony Blair seemed for a moment to have apologised for taking us to war against Iraq on a false prospectus. Well, sort of apologised, anyway.

It's worth looking however at the word "apology'' itself. It can of course mean simply saying "sorry''. As Frankie Laine used to sing, "If I ever done you wrong, dear, I apologise''. But "apology'' is also brother to "apologetics'' - which the dictionary defines as "the defensive argument or method'', and "apology'' itself has the meanings "a defence, justification, apologia'', which last, as in Cardinal Newman's Apologia pro vita sua, means a written defence or vindication.

This was what Blair offered the Labour faithful and faithless alike: an apologia. Though he can do the quivering lip and moist eye stuff as well as anyone since Madelaine Bassett last stared at Bertie Wooster "in a sad sort of way, like the Mona Lisa on one of the mornings when the sorrows of the world had been coming over the plate a bit too fast for her'', this wasn't the occasion for that sort of stuff. Sure, the evidence for Saddam's possession of the celebrated WMD had proved to be wrong, and he could apologise for that, or rather for believing it and passing on the information to us, but, beyond that, "nuts to you''. He wasn't going to apologise for having helped put Saddam in prison. The world was a better place for him being there, and not in power. As apologies, in the common sense of saying "sorry'', go, this stopped a long way short of sackcloth and ashes.

It led instead straight to the apologia, the vindication. There were two views of the world since 11 September: that the attacks were like previous acts of terrorism, and that we were dealing with a "wholly new phenomenon''. Our Tony is too much of a New Man to say outright that the former is a girly view, and that take Real Men like George W and himself take the second, sterner, line, but that's what he meant. So "the only path to take is to confront this terrorism, remove it root and branch and at all costs stop them acquiring the weapons to kill on a massive scale, because these terrorists would not hesitate to use them.''

Those who had been led to believe by leaks through the usual channels that the Prime Minister was going to say "sorry about the war, chaps'' had been well and truly fooled. Mr Blair may regret having lost the trust of a good many in his party, but he hadn't come to Brighton to beg their forgiveness. He wasn't throwing himself on the mercy of the British people. Far from it: in quiet conversational fashion, he was insisting that he was right - even while admitting that he was quite capable, of being "fallible, like any other human being, of being wrong''.

Of course, if some of the delegates, and some of the TV audience, thought he had said sorry, that was fine. But he hadn't, not really. He had offered the other sort of apology, an apologia.

In private life an apology is often desirable, the right thing to offer. Erich Segal's "love means never having to say you're sorry'' is one of the silliest lines in modern literature. "Sorry'' is a necessary word in marriage and friendship, unless you happen to be a saint, which is a rare condition. "Sorry'' is balm to wounds, and breaks cold silences. It's often the prelude to kissing and making up. It may be painful to say "sorry''. It means you have to swallow your pride. But such apologies have to be spontaneous to be worth anything. An apology extracted is a humiliation that satisfies only the pride of the recipient. It heals no wounds, may even breed resentment in the person forced to say "sorry''.

When we demand apologies from others, what we are really doing is seeking to humiliate them. "I beseech ye, in the bowels of Christ,'' Oliver Cromwell said to the Scots Presbyterian ministers, "think ye that ye may be mistaken.'' They were unwilling to do so, unwilling to submit to the humiliation of confessing error, and so implicitly at least apologising for it. Cromwell himself was a "never explain: never apologise'' man.

After "Black Wednesday'' and Britain's ignominious fall out of the ERM, there were many who demanded that John Major and Norman Lamont should apologise for the failure of their policy, and the hardship it had brought and the damage it had caused. Mr Major remained unrepentant, privately and publicly. Mr Lamont said: " je ne regrette rien'', and even declared that he had sung in his bath. That was foolish, but would an apology in reality have made matters better? Wouldn't it have been seized on as a sign of weakness? At best, apologies are political gambles.

The most famous apology for a crime or blunder in English history was Henry II's after the murder of Thomas à Becket. He went even further than we would demand of a modern politician, allowing himself to be scourged by the monks of Canterbury. His act of contrition may have saved his immortal soul (as he perhaps himself believed); but his authority never fully recovered.

Politicians do of course quite often apologise. It is, as I say, a modern fashion. But they tend to reserve their apologies for things for which they were not themselves responsible.

So Tony Blair apologises for the Irish famine of the 1840s, a painless cosmetic effort; and in 1997 Jacques Chirac becomes the first French President to apologise for the "irreparable'' act which Vichy France had committed against the Jews, an apology which had his fellow Gaullist Philippe Seguin protesting against "this obsession with collective expiation''. Sometimes indeed it seems that there is almost no historical event for which some politician will not apologise - always as long as it is sufficiently remote for no personal blame to be possibly attached. Such apologies - for the slave trade or discrimination against Roman Catholics, for instance - are easy to make, and pointless. They are in reality a species of self-flattery, a demonstration of superior sensibility. They can be made safely because they are impersonal; they do not in any way endanger the career of the person apologising.

It is very different when events are recent, and those responsible are still active. Nobody apologised for the failed policy of appeasement of Hitler. Michael Foot wrote a pamphlet, Guilty Men, published in 1940; but the "guilty men'' stuck to their guns, or at least to office. Lord Halifax, Foreign Secretary at the time of Munich, might later ask the historian John Wheeler-Bennett, "Will I have to stand in a white sheet in the judgement of history?'' but he showed no inclination to don the sheet and parade in it in public saying "Mea culpa: I apologise.'' When Wheeler-Bennett said he probably would, Halifax was indifferent. "My wivvers,'' he lisped, "are quite unwung''.

There's a story, which may be apocryphal, of Cromwell visiting the chapel where the headless body of Charles I lay the night after his execution, and muttering "cruel necessity''. Much of politics in any age is cruel necessity, or what seems like necessity at the time. Do you, should you, apologise for acting in response to what appears necessity? The question is foolish. It remains foolish, even when opinion subsequently determines that the perception of necessity was false. No American politician, in power at the time, has ever apologised for the Vietnam War, even though Robert McNamara has come closest to it by acknowledging mistakes that were made. Any such apology would be futile; it would also be dishonest.

For that is the point: an apology is worthwhile only if it is sincere; an honest expression of regret and confession of fault. Otherwise it is sheer sentimentalism, an exercise in self-indulgence. Of course a politician may see tactical advantage in a sort of apology such as that offered by President Clinton for "inappropriate behaviour'' with regard to Monica Lewinsky. But few could doubt that the only thing Clinton really regretted was the embarrassment he had brought upon himself, and the difficulties in which his "inappropriate behaviour'' had landed him.

When we demand apologies from a politician, we are not looking for an act of healing as a prelude to reconciliation, though we may persuade ourselves that this is what we are doing. Instead we are hoping to see him abase himself. It is not, as some suggest, a purification ritual. It is more like that scene in Coriolanus when the tribune says to Coriolanus that he should "submit'' himself

... to the people's voices,

Allow their officers, and are


To suffer lawful censure for

such faults

As shall be prov'd upon you...

If Coriolanus will indeed submit to censure, apologise and "repent what you have spoke'', as his friend Menenius advises him, then all will be well. Of course it isn't; he cannot submit to this humiliation. To apologise is to bow to another's will.

There is in reality for the politician only one satisfactory form of apology, and it is resignation. This satisfies because it is an admission of error which at the same time enables him to retain his honour and self-esteem. We in our turn admire the politician who says, "I got it wrong; sorry''; and then goes. But we do not admire the one who offers an apology which we feel and think to be insincere, because he still remains in office. Indeed he becomes an object of our deeper and sharper contempt.

Now Tony Blair was never going to resign on account of his conduct of the Iraq war; therefore he is right not to have offered an apology, and to have presented his party conference instead with an apologia, a vindication.

He may be due us an apology for taking the country to war on what now appear to be false pretences, but, as he said, even those who opposed the war, believed, as he did, in Saddam's WMD. Mr Chirac and Gerhard Schröder, for instance, didn't deny their existence; they argued only that the UN weapons inspectors should be given as much time as they needed to find them. So, on this point, Blair offered a sort of heavily qualified, apology: Sorry, I got that wrong.

But on the main issue, or what seems to him the main issue, the waging of the war and the deposition of Saddam, he believes he was right. Therefore, to his mind, he has nothing to apologise for. Indeed to do so would be absurd, unless he was also prepared to withdraw British forces from Iraq immediately.

To apologise for the war would cost him his self-respect, and leave his policy in ruins. More than that, it would finish him. The response wouldn't be renewed approval because he had apologised. It would be the loss of authority in the Cabinet, the party, and the country.

So, right or wrong - and he is convinced of his righteousness - there is no turning back, no apology. He must go on, either to something that may be styled success, even victory, or to the discovery that he is mixed up in a political and parliamentary version of the last Act of Macbeth. As for those who think he should say "sorry'', they have one remedy - to vote him out of office.

HENRY II When four of his knights killed Archbishop Thomas à Becket in Canterbury cathedral in 1170, King Henry walked barefoot to the site of the murder, where he prayed whilst being whipped by monks. He begged forgiveness from the Pope, who later made Becket a saint

DAVID SEAMAN After failing to save the Ronaldinho free kick that put England out of the World Cup, June 2002 "I just want to say sorry to all the fans. I feel as if I have let people down. I thought he mis-kicked the free-kick and I misjudged it"

CHERYL TWEEDY Member of girl band Girls Aloud, after her conviction for assaulting a toilet attendant in a Guildford club, November 2003

LESLIE GRANTHAM Eastenders' Dirty Den, after a newspaper published webcam pictures of the actor exposing himself in his dressing-room, May 2004. "I would like to unreservedly apologise to the cast and crew of EastEnders and the BBC for the embarrassment that has been caused by recent newspaper allegations. I very much regret that a moment's stupidity has cast a shadow over what I consider one of Britain's best shows of which I'm thoroughly proud to be a part. I am wholeheartedly ashamed of my behaviour"

THE DAILY MIRROR After publishing hoax photographs of British troops torturing prisoners in Iraq, which led to the resignation of editor Piers Morgan in May 2004. "The Daily Mirror published in good faith photographs which it absolutely believed were genuine images... However there is now sufficient evidence to suggest that these pictures are fakes and that the Daily Mirror has been the subject of a calculated and malicious hoax. The Daily Mirror therefore apologises unreservedly"

THE NEW YORK POST In July, the New York Post was forced into an embarrassing step-down when its front-page exclusive (left) claimed that John Kerry had chosen Dick Gephardt as his running mate. This was not in fact the case. The following day, it ran a humble correction (right) revealing that the chosen man was in fact John Edwards

DENISE VAN OUTEN In June 1998, TV presenter Denise Van Outen apologised for taking an ashtray and a tissue box holder from Buckingham Palace and promptly sent them back to the Queen. Miss Van Outen took the items during a royal reception for a select group of trendy young Britons. The former co-host of Channel Four's Big Breakfast, apologised to the Queen in front of her viewers: "I am really sorry. It was just a bit of fun," she said. She said she also sent the Queen a stuffed camel with a note saying: "Sorry, Ma'am. I didn't mean to give you the hump"

DAVID BECKHAM The style icon and England midfielder made a public apology to the nation following his sending off against Argentina during the 1998 World Cup in France. England were knocked out after going on to lose the game. Beckham said: "This is without doubt the worst moment of my career...I want every England supporter to know how deeply sorry I am"