Matthew Norman: Power means never having to say sorry

Nothing humanises like humility; or dehumanises as much as sullen denial
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Now here's a multiple choice question for anyone thinking of enrolling for the new Moral Relativism in Modern Britain course at the University of Wonderland (formerly March Hare Polytechnic). Who intoned those words at a febrile press conference on Wednesday evening?

Was it: A) Ian Blair, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, speaking of the unconscionable killing of Jean Charles de Menezes and the untruths about the Brazilian's behaviour at Stockwell Tube station to which Sir Ian was so swift to give voice? Or: B) Sven Goran Eriksson, talking about an incalculably meaningless 4-1 defeat to Denmark in a friendly football international in Copenhagen?

Those of you who mentally answered B) even before you were halfway through reading A) show clear promise, and can look forward to an upper second at least, if not a first. Of course, it wasn't Sir Ian apologising for misleading the public, and more pertinently Mr de Menezes's grieving family, with the bizarre untruths told (perhaps unwittingly) about the electrician's clothes, demeanour and refusal to obey police commands.

For all the senseless tragedy of this death, Sir Ian's blithe refusal to own up to a sequence of terrible mistakes reminds me of the classic Not The Nine O'Clock News sketch in which a beat bobby is carpeted for charging a black man with "smelling of foreign food" and "walking on cracks in the pavement".

Whatever is eventually discovered by an inquiry which the police will fight like tigers to keep private and overload with pliant placemen, the facts already leaked speak deafeningly for themselves. If not in cold blood, the poor man was executed in blood that ought to have been a great deal warmer than it was; and a pitiful attempt to cover this up was then made, if not orchestrated, by the country's most senior policeman.

It seems Sir Ian will wait six hours before smearing Mr de Menezes as a barrier-vaulting, bulky jacket-wearing, suicide bomber-impersonating fool who all but entrapped the marksmen into sticking seven bullets in his head. And when that version of events turns to dust, we are asked to wait six months for the official report.

No one can be astonished by these double standards, which are shared between police, politicians and all those well practiced in the ancient art of buck-passing. It is the reflex reaction of any public figure under pressure to point to a slow-moving official inquiry whose findings he hopes to influence, put a tremulous finger to his lips, and mouth "ssshhhhh!".

The golden rule, to adapt Erich Segal in Love Story, is this: power means never having to say you're sorry ... unless it's for something for which you cannot possibly be held to account. It was fine for Mr Blair to apologise for the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six, because he was fronting that hideous college rock band or working as Derry Irvine's pupil when those miscarriages of justices were committed. It would come as small surprise if Ian Blair issued a heartfelt and tearful apology next week for the failure to catch Jack the Ripper.

What could be nicer, after all, than to look magnanimous by showing contrition for the failures of others? If it's your own howler, on the other hand, then you revert to the Disraeli default position of "never apologise, never explain". On this 60th anniversary of the Japanese surrender, Sir Ian cannot bring himself even to go as far as Hirohito, and admit that the attempt to apprehend Mr de Menezes developed not necessarily to the Met's advantage.

The crazy thing about this plague of sullen denial is that it's so utterly self-defeating. We love nothing more than someone big enough to admit their own inadequacies. Estelle Morris is one of New Labour's very few admired figures because she admitted she wasn't up to the job of education secretary (although she seemed far more so than the incumbent, Ruth Kelly). Kevin Keegan became almost a hero when he quit as England coach, saying he simply couldn't cope with the tactical demands of international football.

Both of them benefited from their honesty, Morris quickly returning to government and Keegan landing a plum job (alright, a job; let's not go overboard) at Manchester City. If Mr Blair had confessed before the general election that, although he meant well and believed the false intelligence, in retrospect he had to accept that Iraq was the worst foreign policy debacle since the appeasement of Hitler, he might well have won a majority well into three figures. Certainly, the judgement of history about which he is believed to obsess would have been infinitely kinder than it will be, finding him a misguided but relatively benign character rather than a pathological teller of whoppers.

If David Blunkett had said how deeply sorry he was for cuckolding Stephen Quinn, diverting Sir Ian's troops from breaking up terrorist cells to investigate schoolboys playing Knockdown Ginger on Kimberly's front door, it's unlikely that three quarters of Britain's fringe theatres would be devoting themselves to ridiculing him with dramatised accounts of his erotic adventures.

Nothing humanises a public figure like humility; nor dehumanises one so much as wilful and dishonest intransigence in the face of overwhelming evidence.

If Sir Ian could only grasp this and issue a genuine and unqualified apology - not the traditionally grudging "I have to take responsibility because it happened on my watch" - to the de Menezes family, and promised to do everything in his power to learn from this fiasco, he might even cling on to his job. As it is, his refusal to admit the blindingly obvious will further antagonise his former fan club in the right-wing press to the point at which Charles Clarke has no choice but to give him the boot.

It would be naive to the point of childishness to expect important public servants to yield themselves to the demands of common decency. The fact that a mother mourns in Sao Paolo evidently weighs on Sir Ian's conscience no more heavily than the despicable attempts to disguise the incompetence that led to the death of her son. But surely you cannot rise to the post of Metropolitan Police Commissioner without a heightened sense of self-interest. If Sir Ian Blair wants to postpone the day when he is reduced to making TV commercials for tyres and electric awnings, he should waste no time before throwing himself on the mercy of an oddly forgiving British public.