How did we get into this sorry mess?

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The Independent Online

Last month King Juan Carlos of Spain, on a visit to Morocco, was asked to apologise for the expulsion of the Moors from Spain in 1501. He failed to oblige. Clearly it wasn't because he felt he couldn't say sorry for historical persecutions, since he had already apologised for the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. So why didn't he say sorry to the Moors? Maybe he wasn't sorry and didn't feel it was his fault. He may even have felt that the Moors, having conquered Spain in the first place, had a bit of apologising to do themselves...

As this complicated question of making apologies is very much in the air at the moment, I thought I'd try to simplify it today by listing the six main kinds you are likely to encounter.

1. Apologies made on Michael Howard's orders

Mr Howard seems to think that if he makes people apologise, everything will be better and the Tories will sweep back to power. He made Boris Johnson go all the way to Liverpool to apologise to the people of that strange place for saying things a lot of people thought were not far off the mark. Johnson wanted to keep his shadow cabinet job, so he did it. He then lost his shadow cabinet job. Mr Howard never said sorry about that. Mr Howard has also insisted that Prince Harry should apologise for wearing a Nazi armband. Prince Harry, not having a shadow cabinet post, failed to respond.

2. Apologies made for historical misdemeanours

A speciality of national leaders with a guilty conscience about something else. If you are President Clinton, and you feel a bit guilty about your sex life, you apologise for slavery. If you are Mr Blair and you feel a bit guilty about taking Britain into an unjustified war in Iraq, you apologise about the Guildford Four. It costs them nothing and makes them sound as if they are doing the right thing.

3. Blair's non-apology

If asked to apologise for the Iraq war, Mr Blair has a technique of being unrepentant about something else. It goes like this:

Us: Are you sorry you got us into a war in Iraq on totally false pretences?

Blair: I am never going to be sorry that we toppled a tyrant like Saddam Hussein.

It cleverly makes Blair feel good about himself and makes us take our eye off the ball for a second, during which he picks it up and goes home with it without apologising for anything.

4. Apologies demanded by an entire nation or group

Recently there have been many demands from black people from America or the Caribbean for us to apologise for slavery. Sometimes it is the British as a whole. Sometimes it is individual ports which got rich on slavery such as Bristol or Liverpool. (Liverpool asked to apologise!) It was certainly a hideous institution, but I am not sure what is gained by apologising now. And should we not ask the African tribes who blithely sold their fellow Africans into slavery to apologise as well ?

Some nations and groups are more given to demanding apologies than others. The Jews are more vocal than most. The Welsh seem much more vocal than the Scots. There are other groups which find it very hard to say sorry. Not the Germans. The Germans have done it handsomely. The British and the Americans, however, seldom see anything they have to apologise for. The Japanese are even worse, and to this day have never sounded in the least guilty about the war. Thank goodness the Japanese never persecuted the Jews, or we would have an amazing stand-off.

5. Apologies demanded but not given

Ken Livingstone was recently asked to apologise for calling someone a concentration camp guard but wouldn't. Well, if I were a guard at Guantanamo Bay, I would have been deeply offended. Talking of which, I wonder whether we British have ever been asked to apologise for inventing concentration camps, in the Boer War?

6. Oh, I'm sorry. I can't bring you number 6. We've run out of space. I'm very sorry. I truly am...