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When sorry seems to be the only word, whisper it

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 01, 2012

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"I'd rather have a stream of abuse from someone who's done me no harm; than an awfully nice letter from the Prince of Wales saying he's sorry he broke my arm."

Like Ogden Nash, we'd agree that there's a limit to what an apology can achieve. And yet it's ingrained in our culture from childhood that saying sorry is an important factor when any misbehaviour is being judged. Even when literally being judged – the sentences received by serious criminals still reflect whether the accused showed any signs of remorse, which amazingly, considering how easy it would be, many of them don't.

Apologising has become a 21st-century thing. "Never apologise; never explain," was once a buttress of the British stiff upper lip, a phrase attributed among others to Charles I, and more recently reinforced by the crazier end of the insurance industry. I once wanted to put a notice in my workplace saying "Beware of the step", but I was solemnly told that by drawing attention to the fact that there was a step someone might need to beware of I was de facto admitting liability if anyone fell over, etc – in effect apologising in advance. Better that they fell unaware.

If you have a car shunt, the prescribed behaviour is to hurl accusations at the other party even if you both know it was your fault.

But we're getting used to the "S" word. Instead of telling their clients to blank the media and tough things out, politicians are now being advised to get their apology out there fast; 21st-century Man is only human – he hugs, he cries, he sings soppy songs, he's easily hurt, and sure, he makes mistakes, who doesn't? Make a clean breast of it guys, draw a line, move on.

Except that with politicians you need to tune your antennae and listen very, very carefully. What are they sorry about? Was something actually their fault?

Well actually no. When Andrew Mitchell MP apologised for abusing the police, he managed to pepper his apology with caveats: he'd had a hard day, he'd only lost his temper and sworn a tiny bit, the police's recollection – even though they're wearily accustomed to recording verbatim abuse – must therefore have been, well, a pack of lies. In fact it could have happened to anyone.

But at least it wasn't set to music. Nick Clegg's easy grasp of practical politics would shame Mr Bean's cack-handed cousin, but to go through his make-or-break conference to the tune of his own apologetic wittering (to a damnably catchy tune) was a new low. He was sorry. So, so sorry. But what for?

Because his party had benefited from a huge youth vote, standing up for the kids already betrayed by Labour and promising they shouldn't go into their working lives carrying a massive sack of debt on their backs? Because he'd then tossed that solemn and central pledge into the bin at the first whiff of coalition? Because he'd broken a promise made right in our faces?

Actually no. It could have happened to anyone. He meant it at the time but in a coalition you can't always have your own way, stuff happens, ladidah, and in the end the only thing he was so, so sorry about was the decent stance he took in the first place.

But there is a place for apologies, especially whole-hearted attempts to make amends for shameful events of the past. Politicians are far more candid and free when apologising for things for which they can't possibly be blamed, and it really does matter. The pain of injustice remains an open sore long after the agony of bereavement has softened, and the final admission of the truth of Hillsborough was just as vital 23 years later. It's right that the legal unfolding should be accompanied by a formal apology from the head of government, a public bowing of the head and act of respect for so much needless suffering.

My own respect for David Cameron has never been higher than when hearing his graceful, unreserved acceptance of blame on our behalf for the callous murder of civilians by British troops on Bloody Sunday, the indefensible defended, at last, no longer.

But Kipling's Law of the Jungle, as quoted by Baloo the Bear, was that, welcome and important as it might be: "Sorrow never stays punishment." As the unfortunate Mr Clegg is sure to discover, sooner or later. Beware of the step...

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