Now that's what I call an apology

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The Independent Online

I'd just like to start by saying how truly sorry I am. A few years ago, I complained that nobody seemed to apologise any more, inadvertently unleashing a torrent of regret, self-reproach and self-abasement from public figures. Tony Blair apologised for the Irish potato famine, the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, apologised for failing to intervene in Rwanda, the BBC apologised to the Government over Andrew Gilligan, the Pope apologised for injustices against indigenous people in the South Pacific, the French government apologised for the collaboration of the Vichy regime in the Nazi holocaust, the Catholic church in Spain apologised for supporting General Franco, Tony Blair (again) apologised to the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven, David Beckham apologised for something that now escapes me, and Bill Clinton positively wallowed in contrition - apologising for slavery, Rwanda and American collusion with military governments in Guatemala. I even received an apology myself, handwritten by one of

I'd just like to start by saying how truly sorry I am. A few years ago, I complained that nobody seemed to apologise any more, inadvertently unleashing a torrent of regret, self-reproach and self-abasement from public figures. Tony Blair apologised for the Irish potato famine, the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, apologised for failing to intervene in Rwanda, the BBC apologised to the Government over Andrew Gilligan, the Pope apologised for injustices against indigenous people in the South Pacific, the French government apologised for the collaboration of the Vichy regime in the Nazi holocaust, the Catholic church in Spain apologised for supporting General Franco, Tony Blair (again) apologised to the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven, David Beckham apologised for something that now escapes me, and Bill Clinton positively wallowed in contrition - apologising for slavery, Rwanda and American collusion with military governments in Guatemala. I even received an apology myself, handwritten by one of the country's most irascible literary figures.

Alert readers will immediately have spotted the diverse nature of these apologies. Some are a frank admission of guilt by someone who has done something wrong or failed to prevent a dreadful act by others, such as the massacre of at least 800,000 people in Rwanda. Others have symbolic value, acknowledging past wrongs and distancing organisations from historical misconduct. Then there are the apologies that strike me as barking mad: Clinton and Blair can be accused of lots of things but they are no more guilty than I am when it comes to slavery or the Irish famine. (I come from a working-class family, probably Irish in origin, and I have never accepted the line that every British citizen carries the guilt of colonialism, any more than every German is responsible for the Nazis.)

This is gesture politics and it devalues the whole process of saying sorry. I don't doubt that Blair was sincere when he apologised for British policy in Ireland or to the people wrongly convicted of bombings in Guildford and Woolwich; in the latter case, he seemed almost overcome by just how very sorry he was. Perhaps the Prime Minister will eventually borrow an idea from Australia and institute a "national sorry day" when we can all go around apologising for things we didn't have any part in. I'll start with the Crusades, and the failure of the England football team to win a major tournament since 1966.

Mind you, I don't want to sound ungrateful or join the ranks of hacks complaining that people apologise too much these days. The problem is not that there are too many apologies but that people, especially politicians, like saying sorry for the wrong things. Several conditions need to be met if an apology is to be more than a PR exercise, including a display of humility, a genuine sense of personal contrition and a resolve to learn from past mistakes.

Mbeki's apology for not intervening in Rwanda would mean more if he did not continue to behave so indulgently towards his dreadful neighbour, Robert Mugabe. And I'd have more sympathy with the Prime Minister if he started apologising for events that happened on his own watch, such as the Iraq war and the appalling behaviour of his closest associates - Alastair Campbell had barely returned to Labour's general election team before he accidentally reminded us that he is bullying personified - instead of things that happened in the reign of Queen Victoria.

Blair admits the intelligence on Saddam's supposed arsenal was wrong but refuses to say sorry because he believes the war was justified. The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, rightly denies that his remark to a Jewish journalist was anti-Semitic but cannot see that his behaviour was boorish and an abuse of power. It is on occasions such as these, when someone's personal conduct reveals an alarming flaw, that a heartfelt apology is most required and least likely to be offered. Sorry, guys, but refusing to back down isn't big or clever - and it certainly isn't designed to win votes.

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