The English are a sorry lot. That's what foreigners think. The English - sojourners in England observe - are always apologising. If an Englishman bumps into you, if you step on his toes, if you give him the wrong change, "Sorry," he'll say. The great Spanish journalist Julio Camba conducted an experiment in London - deliberately barging into people to see how they would react. Almost all of them begged his pardon.
Perhaps that is why English apologies mean so little. They are routine exercises in tokenism. It's easy to say sorry, as long as you don't mean it. If you really feel sorry, you can't say so, for fear of aligning your contrition with all the meaningless apologies of everyday life. Apologise and you earn forgiveness. You even gain praise. But if you refuse to express sorrow for something you don't really regret, you're pilloried for impertinence instead of being praised for sincerity.
The English demand apologies, it seems, but do not demand that they be genuine. Politics is always having to say you're sorry, without ever admitting to anything that matters.
Four current cases show how the apologising habit has brought us to a sorry state. Tony Blair, David Beckham, Boris Johnson and Tom Aikens (a chef who last week accused innocent diners of stealing a spoon) all, in their own way, illustrate what has gone wrong: a gap yawns in England between apology and contrition - between saying "Sorry" and feeling truly sorry at heart.
When he shook up scouse self-pity, Boris Johnson had nothing to apologise for: it was a proper piece of journalistic mickey-taking. But he's losing his struggle to combine the roles of professional intellectual and po-faced politician. In the old days - for which Boris hankers and which he so copiously embodies - you could be a front-bench parliamentarian without sacrificing a sense of humour. Not any more. So he churned out the typical politician's apology, which is no apology at all: "If anyone felt offended, I'm sorry" - sorry, in other words, not for giving offence, but sorry that someone else was daft enough to take it. Now he will have to re-enact the same meaningless ritual in Liverpool itself.
The Beckham case is a deliciously English tissue of anomalies and hypocrisy. Beckham busted an English shibboleth - fair play - by deliberately fouling a fellow footballer. But he hasn't really apologised for that. According to press reports, the player he hacked to the ground has heard nothing from him and the beaten team has received no word of regret or promise of amends. Beckham cheated the public and the sponsors by engineering his own suspension from an international match. But he's refrained from apologising for that either, on the grounds that he would have missed the game anyway through injury.
His gamesmanship was deviously Machiavellian: under the irrational rules of soccer's international governing body, by incurring suspension from an insignificant game, he guaranteed his availability for future, more meaningful encounters. Far from feeling sorry for this, he boasted of his cunning to a tabloid.
What, then, has he apologised for? He's left it unclear. By a process of elimination, it seems that what he really craves is forgiveness for bragging to the media and so getting himself caught. Lax or morally shabby men who run football are happy to ignore foul play and sharp practice, as long as no one brings it explicitly to their notice, but they resent players who draw attention to professional misdemeanours. "Bringing the game into disrepute", they call it.
So the Corinthian spirit has vanished from Wembley - and from Westminster, too, to judge from Mr Blair's latest dodgy footwork. He has apologised for the errors of the intelligence services, but not for acting on those errors - which makes his apology worthless. He has said he "takes full responsibility" for the failures of the intelligence services he commands. But if he really took full responsibility, he would resign.
For Beckham and Blair alike, apology has become a get-out-of-jail-free card, to be played as a substitute for resignation or chastisement. It was squirm-makingly, sick-makingly embarrassing to watch Michael Howard trying to get Mr Blair to apologise, when he should have been trying to get him to resign. It's as if the Prime Minister were offending common values more by rejecting regrets than by starting the war in the first place. An apology, it seems, could blot out bloodshed.
Obviously, Mr Blair can't admit to having made an error so costly in human rights and human lives as the Iraq war. In our litigious age, he would face a huge bill from the victims if he did. So why did Mr Howard waste so much effort trying to wring an apology from him? It can only be because it is an English reflex to apologise, and people in this country feel outraged if the rituals of self-exculpation don't happen in accordance with tradition.
"Say 'Sorry'," parents tell naughty children. "Shake on it," says the teacher to the bully. It rights no wrongs, but it makes us feel good and exempts us from the awkward duty of punishing the malefactor. People will not vote Mr Blair out of office on the grounds that he misled the country into war, sent sons to die for a mistake, exposed them to a morally corrupting environment of violence, risked atrocities and unleashed misery and death, without lawful sanction or just cause. But - Mr Howard calculates - the voters might unseat Blair for his bad manners in declining to apologise.
To Mr Blair, apology is a means of evasion. He never has any trouble apologising for historic injustices, slavery, the excesses of the British Empire, the Irish potato famine: ministers are "sorry" for all of those. But, like the spook-masters' blunders, they are wrongs other people have committed. Mr Blair is sorry for the bombing of Dresden but not the bombing of Baghdad. The removal of Saddam Hussein from power, he apparently believes, sanctifies injustices of a kind the defeat of Hitler cannot assuage. If predecessors or underlings can be blamed, Mr Blair apologises. If it's his shout, he falls obstinately silent.
Yet - call it shamelessness or sheer, brazen nerve - his obstinacy is marvellous, like the breathtaking pig-headedness of Alf Garnett or the heroic myopia of Mr Magoo. He refuses to apologise, in part, because he will not admit to himself that he was wrong.
In this respect, he resembles Tom Aikens, the self-cast stereotype of the temperamental chef. As with Mr Blair, it is apparent to any dispassionate observer that Mr Aikens was wrong. The spoon he accused his clients of stealing lay on an adjoining table for all to see. The dramatic way in which he denounced his suspects - barring the door of a well-patronised dining-room - was unpardonably embarrassing, at the time, to the people he victimised and shaming, in retrospect, to himself. The diners he misrepresented as spoon-stealers had just spent nearly £600 on a meal for four in his restaurant in west London and - to judge from the photos in the papers - exuded flashy prosperity. Luckily for him, their only rejoinder was the traditional English knee-jerk, rather than the kick in the groin. They demanded an apology. By declining, Mr Aikens risks litigation. Someone so willing to pay a high price for obduracy deserves, at least, credit for steadfastness in error. You can't budge or beat the self-righteousness of the wrongheaded.
In other countries, you say you're sorry because you feel it, not because society expects or demands it. In this country, you say it to get off the hook. So perhaps we should be grateful to Blair and Aikens for reinvesting apology with meaning by refusing to mouth regrets they do not feel. Given the choice of shamelessness or hypocrisy, give me shamelessness every time. All that apologising is a silly convention and we'd be bet- ter off without it.
The writer is Professor of Global Environmental History at Queen Mary, University of LondonReuse content