One little s-word is hardly enough

John Major took a gamble and said sorry - but only for the pain, not for the policies and broken promises
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The Independent Online
Have they really thought this one through? The Conservatives' apology to voters for the economic misery of the past few years has certainly won them publicity. Their stark, ungrammatical hoarding-site slogan - ''Yes it hurt. Yes it worked.'' - may not amount to a full-throttle grovel. But it was different enough and unexpected enough to be widely reported.

Yet it was hardly revealing a state secret. Everyone knows that the recessionary tax rises and the counter-inflationary policy hurt. As to whether they ''worked'' or not, there is a lively discussion to be had; but it's the sort of thing you expect Conservative ministers to say. So at one level, the news was no news at all: ''Tories say obvious and promise good times - no shock''.

But those first three words were striking because they broke that ancient political taboo - never apologise, never explain. To say sorry, or even to imply sorry, is reckoned an unacceptable loss of face. Politicians, regarded by many electors as self-serving incompetents, seem to think that the slightest admission of frailty or weakness will destroy their psychic force-field. This taboo against apology spreads beyond politics. In private and domestic life, most of us are frequently saying sorry for something petty and sometimes for something big. We recognise failure as a constant part of our own condition (or if we don't, we're probably unlivable-with). Never to apologise would be regarded as a pathological failure of awareness.

But in government, politics, academia and business there are unrelenting anti-apology codes. Rarely do you hear a chief executive tell the shareholders that the slump in profits was caused partly by deteriorating trading conditions, ''and partly by our own recent misjudgements''. The great miscarriages of justice produce compensation but rarely, from court or politician, the s-word. Newspapers apologise when we have to for factual errors but we rarely review our own mistaken judgements.

In each case there may be a compelling-seeming reason for not apologising; those nervy shareholders waiting to strike down a good managing director; the bubbling anger about Irish terrorism; fear of what competitors or tabloids would say; worry about a mocking paragraph in Private Eye. But the cumulative effect is increased cynicism and a degraded public culture. For politicians, there is the added problem that the minute you apologise, there are rival party organisations and shoals of media followers whose job it is to turn and savage you for that honest admission. And having started, where do they finish?

Will there be specific apologies for Black Wednesday, or for the broken tax pledges of 1992? Will there be apologies to beef farmers for the early confusion of response? What about the gas industry investors and employees who entered the private sector with such high hopes? (Readers can here continue the list at will.)

The Conservatives may be the only party that needs to say sorry for its recent actions in government. But going down this path could mean - why not? - Labour adverts apologising for the party's earlier views on nationalisation, income tax, Europe, nuclear weaponry, schooling and so on. It could mean Liberal Democrats running posters announcing: ''Once we were as nutty as a forestful of squirrels. Sorry, everyone. These days we're trying to be bold and original instead...''

Of course, if every party and individual politician howled mea culpas for their past errors or acts of incompetence there would be no broadcast or parliamentary time left for any positive messages. ''Politics'' would become a pre-millennial cacophony of teeth-gnashing, moaning and garment- rending. This would be startling and enjoyable for a while, but we would soon tire of it.

Perhaps the best answer would be to declare an annual day of political amnesty, during which politicians admitted their 12-months-worth of hyperbole, weaselling, half-truth, duff legislation and other deficiencies. On the following morning the papers would run with repentance. But nothing said then could be taken down and used by other politicians later. It would be a swift and final once-yearly purgation.

Dream on... In the real world, the Conservatives' tactic is desperate, but not stupid. They may not have expected the lurid and gleeful headlines their poster campaign provoked, but in believing they have a credibility problem that needs radical treatment, they are quite right. Simply attracting attention for a positive Tory message is hard enough; without some admission of frailty the party has no chance of being listened to.

John Major's supporting arguments for the proposition that ''Yes it's working'' were a bit much, even so: the image of a courageous, unbending party striding forward, taking unpopular decisions for the greater good bears little relation to the catalogue of mishaps, policy changes and pre-election spending sprees that historians will record for 1990-96. It is an air-brushed photograph, sans resignations, sans internal strife, sans quite a lot, really.

In that, it is ordinary political rhetoric. And as to whether ''it'' is working, the various economic juries are out. Male unemployment remains high; growth relatively low; and though manufacturing productivity is good, output is less so. The Chancellor has been issuing warnings about the scope for tax cuts and higher-than-expected borrowing. Even assuming (as I do) that the money for an income tax reduction in November will be found from somewhere, this does not add up to an unvarnished picture of economic prosperity.

Admitting past difficulties doesn't, in short, lead on smoothly to happy assumptions about the future, unless there has been a change of government or tack. However sorry ministers may be about the pain, real and political, they aren't apologising (yet) for any of the policies that helped cause it. Apologies are valuable in themselves; but they are less valuable if they don't imply rethinking or a change in behaviour.

A more realistic alternative to the culture of apology described above is simply to try to bring expectations and rhetoric back into line with reality - then the ''sorries'' would be lesser and more plausible.

For the Conservatives it may be too late this time round. The loud promises of a rich, law-abiding materialist Eden - of wealth cascading down the classes and generations, of Lawson's ''virtuous circle'', of the British miracle and the enterprise centre for Europe - have resounded for too long to be simply walked away from. One round of hoardings shrugging ''Yes it hurt'' isn't enough to banish the sense of let-down felt by millions. But on the other hand, a longer and more abject apologia would merely make Blair's case for him.

Politicians should apologise for specific mistakes - and the rest of us should forgive the odd mistake in public life, as we regularly forgive in private life. But the current Tory campaign is attempting to apologise for vastly inflated expectations, hubris and error in just three words. It is a tiny chirp of honest admission amid a dishonest, bombastic political culture, contributed to by all parties. The lesson is clear: don't promise the earth, don't exaggerate your power, don't raise expectations. Because if you do, you will be found out, and when you are, a Saatchi ''sorry'' won't be enough.