Saying sorry has become a political act. In this confessional age, the carefully timed apology, with just the right amount of emotion, can do wonders for a politician’s fortune. But there are deeper and more noble reasons too for a public act of apology on behalf of oneself or of others. James Crabtree documents this cultural development in his article “The Hardest Word“.
Contrition is a counter-intuitive approach to political renewal. Most politicians would more instinctively follow John Wayne’s dictum in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: “Never apologise, and never explain. It’s a sign of weakness.” Apologies are unmanly acts that cede ground to opponents: rule with conviction instead. Given Britain’s adversarial politics, it’s no coincidence that apologies haven’t been offered for many of our biggest mistakes—from appeasement, Suez, and the poll tax to the high-rise towers of the 1960s.
But such a brazen approach now looks old fashioned, not least judged by this year’s bumper crop of apologies. Already both party leaders have said sorry for expenses, while in early December David Cameron also apologised for inaccurately accusing the government of giving school funding to radical Islamists. Gordon Brown notably didn’t apologise to the Chilcott inquiry, but did to 130,000 British orphans deported to Australia between the 1920s and the 1960s. Elsewhere, bankers apologised for their bonuses, Jonathan Ross for lewd phone calls, and comedian Jimmy Carr for joking that the Afghan war would bequeath Britain a world-beating 2012 paralympic team.
Such things might seem commonplace, but they are part of a more profound shift towards a confessional politics. Where once apologies were largely about individual conduct, now they more often involve institutions, even nations. And while the act of apologising in politics has been on the rise throughout the 20th century, it was during the 1990s that the age of the political apology really took off. It was an era that actually began two decades earlier, on 7th December 1970, when West German leader Willy Brandt visited a monument commemorating the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising. Having laid a wreath, he paused, and suddenly knelt on the monument steps. “Under the weight of recent history, I did what people do when words fail them,” he said later. This Warschauer kniefall, an apology without words, flashed round the world’s front pages. The gesture did more to encapsulate Germany’s remorse for Nazism than any official act before or since.
Following Brandt’s lead, both formal state apologies and publicly captured contrition by their leaders became increasingly common. In recent years, Canada and Australia apologised to their aboriginal populations, while the US, Finland, and Japan expressed regrets for the treatment of their indigenous peoples. Tony Blair apologised for the Irish potato famine and the slave trade, Jacques Chirac for the Dreyfus affair, and both Britain and Canada said sorry for shooting deserters. Truth commissions became fashionable. Pope John Paul II apologised for persecuting Galileo and for the crusades. In 2007 a Danish minister even seemed to mock the new practice when he apologised to the people of Ireland for the Vikings.
I’m sure the Vikings, in their turn, are also due an apology from someone.