Leading article: An apology of an apology

Related Topics

When people are accused of doing something wrong, they tend – if there is any substance to the charge – to try to move the goalposts. Politicians are no different from the rest of us in this respect. It is just that their evasions are more public.

Gordon Brown's repeated line about a problem that came "out of America" has begun to grate, even though we accept that it is a large part of the truth. A ComRes poll for The Independent on Sunday in November, for instance, found that 57 per cent of voters disagreed that "Gordon Brown should take most of the blame for the rising unemployment rate".

No one else predicted the downturn, apart from a few doom-mongers who, like stopped clocks, were bound to be right eventually, so why should Mr Brown be blamed for failing to see it coming?

However, his refusal to admit that it was a mistake to promise an "end to boom and bust" made him look as if he were simply denying reality. Last week he was accused by Jon Cruddas, one of his own backbenchers, of lacking "emotional intelligence". We were bound, therefore, to end up where we are today. The Prime Minister is under pressure to say sorry. With a wave of anti-politician anger sweeping through the low-paid end of the profitable energy industry, he risks looking out of touch if he fails to express some form of contrition. Hence today's pre-recorded interview with the BBC's Jon Sopel.

Yet that interview could never have been enough. He was never going to admit that David Cameron is right to say that he did not fix the roof when the sun was shining. Not least because in his speech to Labour's annual conference he vehemently rebutted the charge – moving the goalposts to declare that Labour did fix the roofs, walls, equipment and staff pay of schools and hospitals. Which is beside the point, because the complaint is that this spending was on the never-never, increasing public borrowing during the economic boom.

He was never going to accept in this weekend's interview that he was partly responsible for the severity of the bust. But he could have accepted what everyone knows is true: that the regulatory system he designed had been found wanting.

It was suggested privately by the Prime Minister's advisers last week that Mr Brown could not allow any hint of concession in the male-rutting atmosphere of the House of Commons, but that he would accept, in the calmer atmosphere of a TV studio, that he had made mistakes. Instead, all that he said was that "toughening up the regulatory system" was "an acceptance that it wasn't strong enough". It was a classic non-apology apology.

We are reminded of 2004, when Tony Blair was advised by Mark Penn, a Labour pollster, to say "sorry" for the errors in making the case for war in Iraq. Mr Blair had the s-word in the text of his party conference speech but ended up saying something quite different: "I can apologise for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can't, sincerely at least, apologise for removing Saddam."

Mr Blair was quite good at apologising for things for which he was not responsible, such as the Irish potato famine. But generally politicians – like the rest of us – are adept at insulating themselves from direct personal responsibility. George Bush shied away from a direct apology for the horrors of Abu Ghraib prison when he met King Abdullah II of Jordan: "I told him I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners."

Colin Powell, his Secretary of State, memorably described this as using the "third person passive once removed".

Only last week, Richard Williamson, the Holocaust-denying bishop, offered another striking example of the art form, conspicuously failing to repudiate his "imprudent" remarks and apologising – to the Pope, and only for having caused him "so much unnecessary distress and problems".

Of course, the demand that politicians say sorry could be a displacement activity in the face of problems that make us feel powerless. Just as lottery ticket sales have risen and women at the Bank of England are advised to wear heels and lipstick, the recession prompts us to demand an apology from the man in charge.

It may be unfair to expect Mr Brown to apologise for failing to raise taxes that we did not want him to raise, or for regulatory failures that no one else pointed out. But Mr Cruddas is right about emotional intelligence. The Prime Minister needs to hit the right note of humility before anyone will listen to what he has to say about the future. And, as anyone who has ever been in the wrong should know, saying sorry after you have been asked to apologise is too late.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Ashdown Group: Senior .Net Developer - Kingston Upon Thames, Surrey

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A long-established, technology rich ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Project Manager

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This growing digital marketing ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Dame Maggie Smith stars in Downtown Abbey as Countess Violet  

We need to see Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon on stage again

David Lister
Women in India protest against rape and other attacks on women and girls in the country.  

India is ready for the truth about its shocking state of gender equality — but its politicians aren’t

Manveena Suri
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable