In December 2021 the British public (and a few nerdy onlookers) witnessed a rare thing: the near-perfect political apology. Allegra Stratton, then the government spokeswoman on Cop26, was filmed outside her house in tears. Stratton explained why what she did had been wrong, acknowledged the offence caused, expressed regret (to last “for the rest of her days”) and, crucially, handed in her resignation. What is more, she did all this just one day after the release of the offending video. Her apology encompassed all the essential components that are so often lacking when politicians use the ‘s’ word: remorse, regret, personal responsibility, action and timing.
Apologies seem to be coming at the public thick and fast, whether it’s Prince Charles regretting Britain’s role in the slave trade or Priti Patel apologising “if” her behaviour upset people. There is value in an apology when it is delivered correctly (the video of Stratton was well received in a dire situation), but too many politicians are doing it badly. To help them improve, Pepys has interrogated the most common pitfalls for those chasing the elusive goal of a successful political apology.
The trend towards apology diplomacy began in the 1990s (a decade apparently known to some – Pepys is not sure who – as the ‘age of apology’), when increasing numbers of leaders started making public apologies for historical acts and crimes committed against foreign publics. Pope John Paul II was a notorious apologiser. In 1994 he apologised to the Czech Republic for the Church’s role in burnings at the stake and the religious wars following the Protestant Reformation. He has also apologised for the Crusades (all nine of them).
When Tony Blair made a formal apology for the Irish potato famine (of 1845 to 1852) in 1997, Jeremy Paxman was outraged. He said: “you should apologise for things that you have done” and “that you recognise that perhaps you shouldn’t have done” rather than for things that other (deceased) people have done.
An apology of this type is a diplomatic tool rather than a personal admission of guilt. It is no coincidence that Blair apologised for the potato famine the year before the Good Friday Agreement was secured (and a diplomatic coup which he was instrumental in achieving).
Perhaps that’s why Pope John Paul II made so many apologies – for over 100 Catholic wrongdoings – in his time at the Vatican. Ostensibly, these were public displays of confession. But apologising for a series of wars that occurred nearly a millennia ago, which lack an obvious lineage to the victimised group, does seem absurd. Such apologies seem more about constructing a smokescreen of benevolence.
When there is a wronged country or community still in existence, it is often recognition (and remuneration) that they are seeking rather than an apology. When Prince Charles visited Barbados as the country finally shed the Queen as its head of state becoming a republic, David Denny of the Caribbean Movement for Peace and Integration said he was “angry”. Denny expalined that concrete help and reparations were needed “to transform society” after the devastating impact of the slave trade.
So what is the point in apologising for past atrocities? They acknowledge past injustices but when economic inequalities are still impacting lives – as is the case with slavery – words alone do not suffice.
That is why it is so important to have actions to accompany an apology. After an investigation found that she had indeed bullied staff, home secretary Priti Patel’s apology fell short as she refused to resign or face any consequences. Without Allegra Stratton’s resignation, her apology would have lacked legitimacy.
Patel’s apology verged on the non-apology, yet another regular political sighting. After the A Level exams fiasco in summer 2020, Gavin Williamson said he was “sorry for the distress” caused – the passive tense suggesting that pupils could have chosen whether or not to be affected by his department’s failings.
An offshoot of this strategy is the rather startling tactic of total apology refusal. This was former MP Owen Paterson’s game when he was found to have broken lobbying rules. He simply denied there having been any wrongdoings. In the end, this proved unfeasible.
Paterson’s was an approach all too familiar to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has long been an apology avoider. That changed last December, when he was suddenly forced into such a tight corner on “partygate” that he hastily apologised numerous times. Each time, though, it has come too late and felt too shallow. To apologise for a mistake (or breach of the law) after you’ve spent a week denying it ever took place is, unsurprisingly, difficult. To couch some of this apology in a personal “furious” reaction and stress your ignorance of its existence, only for it later to be revealed that you were guilty of similar misconduct neither conveys remorse, nor honesty.
The only moral standard to which Allegra Stratton’s apology failed to live up to was that she had to be caught in order for her to make it. But if you’re expecting those in power to apologise or confess to errors that haven’t already been broadcast across the nation, you’re in the wrong game. Politicians are rarely sorry creatures by nature; being sorry because you’re caught is the name of the game.