Dave Richardsmartin_smithIt is a recurrent theme that bubbles away under the day-to-day cut and thrust of politics: when should political actors apologise; how frequently should they apologise without corroding all political capital; and what degree of contrition should be expressed. It is hard to imagine how a space to do politics with a greater honesty and openness can be achieved. However, it would be refreshing to see a new tradition in which apology did not have such high political stakes attached to it, write Dave Richards and Martin Smith.

Less than seven days elapsed from the half minute, somewhat perfunctory apology offered by Maria Miller to the Commons over the misuse of Parliamentary expenses and her letter to the Prime Minister resigning as Minister for Culture, Media and Sport where she expressed ‘great regret’.  In the same week, the political journalist Steve Richards’ article in the New Statesman reflected on the mood within the Labour Party over Ed Miliband’s leadership.  His piece also, coincidently, raised the issue of the apology in politics. In it he argued that Miliband and his Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls should resist any pressure to apologise for allegations of ‘reckless spending’ during the last Labour Government, but then went on to suggest that Miliband had become the ‘most contrite leader of the opposition in history’ having already declared that New Labour’s policies in regards to the Iraq war, financial regulation and immigration were mistaken.  This, Richards’ contrasted with the absence of an apology by Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s for the three-day-week, despite being a minister in Heath’s Cabinet, or indeed ‘apologising for anything’.  The empirical accuracy of the extent of Miliband’s contriteness and its absence in the case of Thatcher may not bear up to closer scrutiny.  Nevertheless, it raises the interesting topic of the ‘politics of the apology’.

It is a recurrent theme that bubbles away under the day-to-day cut and thrust of political discourse and action, and one suffused with complexity: when should political actors apologise (if at all); how frequently should they apologise without corroding all political capital; and what degree of contrition (i.e. guilt) should be expressed.  Yet, it is a subject that has garnered only limited academic attention (see for example Cunningham 1999, Nobles 2008).  Such contributions tend to reflect on moments when, for example, a member of the political class, acting on behalf of their government or a particular institution, apologises for previous misdemeanours, either domestic or international.  Here, notable examples, might include Kevin Rudd’s ‘sorry speech’ to the Australian indigenous community in 2008 over the ‘stolen generations’, or the forthright and unconditional apology David Cameron gave in 2010 following the Saville Report into ‘Bloody Sunday’.  The latter when compared to what amounted to little more than a statement of remorse, again given by David Cameron over the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 2013 highlights the degree to which a spectrum of contrition is always at play.  The range here is enormous, from the outright, full-hearted apology to what amounts to little more than a discursively constructed, mealy-mouthed expression of regret.

But, in trying to further explore the politics of the apology, our focus can of course shift from an act of contrition on behalf of a government or an institution to the context of the individual mea culpa.  The cases across history of individual or more personal political apologies are of course legion. Yet a rarely considered element in this debate is the extent to which particular political cultures and traditions can have a bearing on the politics of apology.  In the case of the UK, might it be that the ideas associated with the British political tradition and its empirical manifestation in the form of the Westminster model may have a bearing on the act of apologising.  At work here is a political culture formulated on a top-down, leadership view of democracy, organised round the principle of collective and individual ministerial responsibility.  A system which nurtures a highly charged atmosphere of inter-party conflict and contestation reflecting an approach to politics based on a ‘winner-takes-all’ mentality in which there is little space offered for consensus or conciliation. Such a way of doing politics must surely cast a shadow over the act of a political apology.  Westminster’s fostering of an adversarial model of politics, in turn ensures that there are high-costs, both personal and political, attached to the political apology, be it at the level of the individual MP, cabinet rank or even more widely at the aggregate governmental level.

The problem then of the political apology in the context of the British system is that it is a finely balanced expression of error.  Too much apology and the politician is in a sense saying “I am accountable”, and so perhaps should take the consequences, but too little and it seems insincere (as in the case of Maria Miller).  Consequently, in Britain apology just becomes another aspect of the political game with statements intended not to offer culpability but to prevent resignation.  It is another element of a closed and dishonest politics.  Everybody knows that an apology is not saying sorry but saving political skin (or in the case of Bloody Sunday apologising for someone else).  This form of apology then is just another aspect of adversarial politics where a human weakness is a sign of political failure.  More importantly it reflects again the great distance between the political class (who make grudging apologies to save their skins) and the ordinary British citizens (who frequently use the word sorry as part of the patios of everyday speech).  The recall to managed apologies is a further indication of how the political class infantilises the electorate by believing they can be assuaged about misdemeanours by a stage managed and clearly not heartfelt apology.  The whole problem with the Miller case was that the Prime Minister had earlier insisted that she had already made amends for any minor wrongs and, in the light of her apology we should all move on. This in itself raises the question of why then did she resign? No longer was it about taking responsibility and apologising for a set of actions, but instead it was a matter of political expediency.   The net effect is to corrode any credence attached to the original apology and further damage publicly held perceptions of politics more broadly.

The latter points links to wider discussions surrounding the current climate of ‘anti-politics’, that so often feeds off accusation of politicians being partial with the truth, of sophistry and obfuscation.  It also reflects a sense of resentment stemming from a perception that politicians are often unwilling to apologise or take responsibility for their actions. Such a state of affairs is unsurprising given the British political tradition and the way it has shaped both the discourse and actions of its politicians.  It is hard to see how, under the present system, what Tony Wright (2012) refers to as a space to do politics with a greater honesty and openness can be achieved.  To this list we might also add contrition, whereby politicians who get things wrong [for whatever reason], feel less inhibited in offering a full and frank apology.  As we have argued elsewhere (Richards, Smith and Hay 2014), only with a sea-change in the nature of both the British political tradition and its model of doing politics, will the current legitimacy crisis surrounding traditional arenas of formal politics be likely to abate.  It would be refreshing if a new tradition might be staked out in which the fear of apology was one that did not have such high political stakes attached to it.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Front page image credit: butupa.

About the Authors

Dave RichardsDave Richards is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Manchester. 



martin_smithMartin Smith is Anniversary Professor of Politics at the Department of Politics at the University of York


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