These demands for "saying sorry" have got to stop. All they do is allow the sinner an opportunity to manipulate his or her public image. And as politics and business converge, the better able people are to look good because they've done bad.
Let's look at the benchmark of best practice. Stephen Byers was the Minister of Transport when he denied involvement in an affair known as "The Resignation of Martin Sixsmith". He said, on broadcast television: "I had absolutely nothing to do with and no discussions about Mr Sixsmith's departure."
This was untrue. There was a great furore. He had to explain himself to the Commons. This was his apology: "... If my answers on the programme gave the impression that I did not put forward a view or make clear my views to others inside and outside the Department, that is obviously something that I regret and I welcome this opportunity in the House to clarify matters."
"If my answers gave the impression" then "that is obviously something I regret"?
It wasn't an apology at all, it was "a clarification" – and to be clear, it was the answers that were to blame, not him. And more to the point, we listeners were also implicated for having accepted and entertained a false impression that Mr Byers hadn't meant to give. We should really have been apologising to Mr Byers.
So with last week's bankers and their apologies: one was "unqualified", one was "unreserved", another was "profound". None was real. A proper apology conforms to those acts of atonement that mother (or nanny, or teacher) demanded in the old days: "Say you're sorry AND MEAN IT!"
They aren't simple statements; proper apologies have a confessional progress in them. Regret is the first thing, recoiling from an act one realises was wrong. "Oh my God, how cruel/stupid/greedy/ treacherous I was!"
And from that follows remorse, which is a period of moral pain as you consider the effects of your actions on your victims. You engage with it. You roll around in the ditch with it. It penetrates your being. You realise you never want to create such harm again.
Then follows repentance, where you reject your past actions, and in your contrite heart ("contrite" is a technical term meaning "crushed") you proceed into a new world.
We never hear apologies like this in public life. But then we don't live in an age of personal responsibility. Public figures are always able to lay the blame off on to a Board, or Advisory Group, Authority, Trust – some Quasi-Autonomous Flak-Catching Organisation that has been set up in the defensive ramparts of the political class. It lets them say, "The system is to blame."
But looking at it like that, maybe these fraudulent expositions do serve a purpose. They show clearly that these people have no intention to change. They haven't thought through their errors, accepted culpability.
They show no remorse, they haven't repented, they are not contrite ... they say sorry and will go back to their old ways as soon as they can. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude, their ways will have to be changed for them.
If they can't be trusted to develop a new banking industry, it means it will have to be done for them. Some say it should be the Government, others the regulators – I like the idea of private equity tearing them back to their solid and sustainable origins. Now that would really make them sorry.Reuse content