Politicians only apologise for what others have done

Ken Livingstone is aware that those demanding he apologise only want to humiliate him

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The best part about the row in which Ken Livingstone told a Jewish journalist he was like a guard at a concentration camp is the brilliant, drunken-sounding dialogue. On hearing the journalist wrote for the London
Evening Standard, Livingstone said, "I'd advise treatment," then a few moments later said it again. Then he added that his paper was "full of scumbags". It's a shame the journalist wasn't on the same wavelength. Then the conversation would have continued:

The best part about the row in which Ken Livingstone told a Jewish journalist he was like a guard at a concentration camp is the brilliant, drunken-sounding dialogue. On hearing the journalist wrote for the London Evening Standard, Livingstone said, "I'd advise treatment," then a few moments later said it again. Then he added that his paper was "full of scumbags". It's a shame the journalist wasn't on the same wavelength. Then the conversation would have continued:

"No, you're the scumbag."

"Are you having a go at my old man?"

"I never wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to play the clarinet."

"He was a good bloke, my old man, a good bloke."

"You're right, he was. I never met him but he was. Here, I've nicked some Pernod, do you want some?"

"I've got some Grand Marnier in the office at City Hall, let's go and finish that off."

And the whole thing would have been resolved with the two of them the best of friends.

Maybe this is the way to re-engage politicians with the public. Prime Minister's Questions should be conducted while paralytic. Howard would start with "The honourable member's a slag. And furthermore, we know where you live."

Blair would get up, but the Speaker would call Margaret Beckett, who'd say "Leave it, Tony, the party opposite isn't worth it."

By the end, they'd be all chummy, with Blair saying to Howard, "Let's face it, Mikey, you don't like 'em, I don't like 'em, but we can't kick 'em all out."

Instead, Livingstone is being advised to apologise by almost everyone, including most of the Labour Party. One Labour spokesperson said: "It's perfectly normal in these situations to stop short of an apology but say you regret any offence caused by your remarks."

As if there's a handbook for how to make apologies you don't mean. Blair has proved a genius at this, saying sorry only for things he had nothing to do with because they happened before he was an MP, like jailing the Guilford Four. Just before the election, he'll announce, "I apologise wholeheartedly to the dinosaurs for the misjudged meteor that struck the Earth during the Jurassic period, causing them a great deal of anguish by making them extinct."

But the most vigorous in their demands for an apology are the same people who, for years, whenever blacks or gays objected to offensive remarks, screamed about PC madness. For example, Simon Heffer, stoic opponent of political correctness, said in yesterday's Daily Mail that Livingstone's comment was "vile, tasteless and offensive with impunity". Perhaps the Mail and Heffer have become far-left anarchists. Next week the headline will be "Hurrah for the Crusties", and the Femail section will show the latest fashions from Paris in balaclavas. Or maybe the Mail has another agenda. The paper is so sensitive about offence to ethnic groups that they've flown reporters to Prague to warn of the "hordes" of gypsies preparing to "swamp" us, informing us of "whole towns in Eastern Europe paid for by asylum-seeking beggars". And all perfectly tastefully, without a hint of vileness or offence.

And in yesterday's Standard, the political editor, Anne McElvoy, insisted that Livingstone was "defending the indefensible by refusing to apologise". I met her once, just after the Americans occupied Baghdad, and suggested the weapons of mass destruction didn't exist. "They'll find them, they'll find them," she insisted, with such manic confidence I wondered if she had them herself, stacked in a locker in Euston Station. Given her enthusiasm for apologies, I'm sure she'll be offering her readers a full statement regretting how she misled them, as soon as there's space once this Livingstone thing has blown over.

The reason, I imagine, why he hasn't apologised is that he's aware that most of those demanding it are not really offended by the remark, but want to humiliate him for other reasons. They want revenge for his radical past, or oppose his defence of asylum-seekers, or they're like the spokesperson for the Jewish Chronicle on the BBC news, who suggested that the proof that his comment was anti-Semitic was that he supported the Palestinians.

The most ridiculous argument of all is that he's damaged the Olympic bid, when surely we shouldn't get them anyway because we'd be rubbish. The 1,500 metres would start with the track still rubble, and the hockey final would take place with a digger on the half-way line, while the referee said, "You'll have to try and knock the ball round it." But the strangest part of the bid is that our multiculturalism is paraded as a selling point, yet it's backed by the Evening Standard, which thrives on trying to terrify Londoners about immigrants.

Maybe the plan is to hold the Olympics here, then bring in laws that mean no foreign athletes will be able to get in the country and then we can clean up all the medals in the gymnastics. So Livingstone should apologise for putting in the bid in the first place. And if there's a Labour Prime Minister in the year 2,650, I'm sure he'll apologise for lying about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

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