Dominic Lawson: You can try to make people say sorry, but does it do any good?

Those wanting Brown to apologise have no intention of forgiving him

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The non-denial denial has become a familiar weapon in the politician's armoury of deception. Now we have the non-apology apology, as devised by David Cameron.

We are told that in his speech a few days ago to the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, the Tory leader said "sorry" for his party's failure to anticipate the credit crunch. "Cameron 'sorry' for debt mistakes" was the headline over the BBC's online account of the speech; and yet neither in the full text of the speech as released by the Conservative Party, nor indeed at any point in the video clip supplied by BBC News, does the word "sorry" or "apologise"– or any variant thereof – emerge from Mr Cameron's lips.

The Times sought to explain this mystery by saying that Mr Cameron had uttered the s-word after the speech, when the television cameras had been removed – presumably for the benefit of well-briefed parliamentary lobby correspondents: "Aides said that Mr Cameron was making the apology to build trust with the electorate. They said that he also believed very strongly that the Prime Minister should apologise, but felt that he could credibly call for this only if he too had admitted mistakes."

This briefing has been taken at face value, with columnists on all sides praising the Tory leader; but, really, it won't quite do. After all, Mr Cameron has been calling on Mr Brown to apologise for the recession for months at Prime Minister's Questions – it can not only now have occurred to him that this line of attack lacked "credibility" without some confession of imperfection on his own part.

No, Mr Cameron's apology is not designed to draw attention to his own failings, in a humble and contrite spirit, but merely to draw further attention to the Prime Minister's cussed refusal to admit to error.

This is a clever political trick – we can grant Mr Cameron that – but since no one can have suffered as a result of the policies of a party devoid of power, any genuine regret that the Tory leader feels will have been based on the fact that he can't gain political kudos from having seen a recession coming (unlike Mr Vince Cable of the Liberal Democrats).

It's true that David Cameron has been characteristically shrewd in picking up on the general mood – the calls for some show of contrition on Gordon Brown's part are almost deafening (including, apparently, from within his own Cabinet). Yet the howls for the Prime Minister to apologise are not themselves sincere, at least in the sense that a son of the manse such as Gordon Brown would understand it. He would have been brought up to learn that those who expect an apology must also be prepared to forgive – this, for example, is at the heart of the Truth and Reconciliation process pioneered by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Brown knows perfectly well that those calling most loudly for him to apologise have not the slightest intention of declaring their forgiveness and understanding. They want him to grovel, that's all – and they'll still be his enemies, even then. They are as likely to say, "Oh well, I suppose we all make mistakes" as the victims of Bernie Madoff would have been to accept the fraudster's lengthy and unconditional apology last week in a Manhattan courtroom. What Madoff's unfortunate fundholders really wanted was not an apology but their money back. Unfortunately that's the one thing Mr Madoff couldn't provide – rather like Mr Brown.

The Prime Minister has, however, made matters even worse for himself by saying that, "My regret is that I failed over these years to persuade people with sufficient force that our proposals [to reform the global financial system] should have been implemented after the [1997] Asian crisis." Even if anyone other than Mr Brown could remember what he said over ten years ago to some of his fellow finance ministers of the day, it is staggeringly insensitive to combine "regret" with "Actually, I told you so". As a married man, the Prime Minister should know this very well. He should only imagine how his wife would react if, after he had once again left the front door open, resulting this time in a burglary, he answered her complaint with: "My regret, Sarah, is that no one in this house listened when I said ten years ago that we should install a burglar alarm".

There are those who claim that in fact Gordon Brown is in a ferment of remorse, kept awake at night by the thought that he could have conducted the nation's economic policies in a way which would have averted some of the difficulties which now confront us. This suggests that he is in an agony of guilt. I don't believe it. Mr Brown's true feelings were expressed in an off-the-record briefing on the plane to Washington last week, as naughtily reported by one of those journalists present: '"What is it that you think I should be apologising for?" [Brown] demanded. "I have nothing to apologise for. You guys just don't get it, do you?"

When one reporter asked why he had let the banks get out of control, Mr Brown leaned towards him and said: "You're saying that I got it wrong. But I didn't. The same problems have happened all over the world and our regulations have been better than anyone else's." In the world of mere facts, this is simply wrong. Both the Spanish and the Canadian financial sectors have avoided the collapse of major banks, in part because of a more rigorous system of oversight. Yet I'm sure that Mr Brown genuinely believes that he could not have done more, even if this involves self-delusion.

In a "shame" culture, such as exists in the Middle East or Japan, this would not be a defence. In such societies, it does not matter if the individual concerned feels deeply that he has done his best. If the general view is that he has done something very wrong, then he must abase himself and ask for forgiveness. Perhaps that is why Prime Ministerial resignations are more common in Japan than they are here.

In the Christian "guilt culture", however, it does not matter if the whole nation thinks that an individual is guilty of reprehensible behaviour. If that person genuinely believes that he has behaved impeccably, then he will not feel shame, or, indeed, the need to apologise to the mob.

Both cultures have their disadvantages. The shame culture effectively condones acts of great immorality, provided that they can be kept secret. The guilt culture appears more soundly based on right and wrong, but can encourage a form of gross moral egotism – the sort of "it feels right to me" argument, with which we have become all too familiar: it's sometimes called "adolescence" – and there are times when the Prime Minister does come across as an over-aged adolescent, full of brooding resentment at slights real or imaginary, and quite staggeringly stubborn, when a bit of insouciant charm would make everyone feel a bit better about things.

That, of course, was his predecessor's inimitable style; but then Tony Blair never apologised, except for such things as slavery, or the unjust imprisonment of the "Guildford Four" in the 1970s – events for which no one could blame him personally in the first place. On the whole – and despite Mr Cameron's self-interested demands that he apologise – I think I prefer Mr Brown's sullen sincerity.

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