Why is sorry so hard to say, Tony?

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair is the right age to have been influenced, as an impressionable teenager, by Erich Segal's slushy novel Love Story. The novel, in case you are too young to remember, was famous for the assertion that "love means never having to say you're sorry",

fitting perfectly with the hippy-dippy atmosphere of the late Sixties. Even if the future prime minister missed the book, he may have seen the 1970 film version in which Ali MacGraw expired from a terminal illness, repeating this irritating mantra to Ryan O'Neal. Or was it the other way round? Anyway, what I am groping for is an explanation of the fact that, when he has so much to be sorry about, apologies tumble so rarely from the Prime Minister's lips.

He did express collective regret, back in 1997, for the Irish potato famine, which is one disaster even I would hesitate to lay at his door. But then I suspect that politicians like apologising for things that are nothing to do with them, which is a painless way of giving an impression of humility. (They are all, I'm sure, sorry about the Crucifixion, the Black Death and the state of Posh and Beck's marriage.) There are exceptions: towards the end of his presidency Bill Clinton started apologising for his administration's foreign policy failures, including his handling of the civil war in Guatemala and his failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda. Clinton seemed much more sincere on these occasions than when he apologised for lying about Monica Lewinsky, and I would like to see more politicians follow his example. It is not too late for Baroness Thatcher to apologise for the myriad disasters she imposed on this country, although whether we could bring ourselves to forgive her is another matter.

Such considerations rarely arise, however, for prime ministers, past and present, are not an apologetic bunch. "I had to search hard for an example of Tony Blair saying sorry for anything," says a psychologist, Roger Giner-Sorolla of Kent University, who has studied public responses to official apologies, "although I found lots of examples of him demanding apologies from people." This is a bit rich from a politician who has yet to apologise for taking us into a dangerous war on a false prospectus, with the dreadful consequences we see on the front pages of our newspapers.

It was, I think, that contemporary philosopher Sir Elton John who pointed out that sorry seems to be the hardest word; he did not specifically mention government ministers, but the song might have been written with them in mind. I have thought for some time that the only way for Blair to restore his credibility, and avert the catastrophe of a Tory revival under Michael Howard, is to admit publicly that he was wrong about weapons of mass destruction. There are none in Iraq now, there were none at the time we went to war, and his reluctance to say sorry for a blunder of such breathtaking proportions is a huge political mistake.

It may be that Blair's intransigence is informed by his training as a lawyer, which seems to require that no one should ever admit to anything. But it is also a reflection of a laddish Westminster culture in which an admission of error is regarded as a fatal weakness, rather than a sign of emotional maturity. Watching Beverley Hughes on the rack last month, I wondered why misleading the House, as it is grandly called, should be a resigning offence if it has been done unintentionally. The workload of ministers is absurd, virtually guaranteed to cause mistakes as sleep-deprived individuals hurriedly prepare for the next appearance before the House or a select committee. I would much rather have an atmosphere in which politicians can apologise and get on with the job, instead of the blood sport of baiting wounded ministers that exists at present.

Estelle Morris astounded everyone when she stepped down as secretary of state for education in 2002, admitting that she was not up to her brief. She was clearly sincere, and that may provide us with a clue towards understanding Blair's failure to apologise for much graver errors of judgement. According to Dr Giner-Sorolla's research, most of us are pretty good at telling whether apologies are offered with genuine feeling. Anyone as self-righteous as the Prime Minister would have to practise an awful lot before he could say sorry and convince us that he really means it.