Why don’t politicians apologise?

Gavin Williamson.

Amid blunders and scandals, it feels like politicians don’t resign or admit blame any more. Is this true, and has the art of the political apology changed?

On 10 August, the country’s attention was briefly diverted by a highly unusual occurrence. After students in the most deprived areas of Scotland had their exam results unfairly downgraded, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon admitted that the Scottish government made a mistake: “Despite our best intentions, I do acknowledge we did not get this right and I’m sorry for that.”

For such a short phrase, it is surprising how little “I’m sorry” crops up in the UK political sphere. There was not an apology in sight in Westminster less than a week later, when a similar system hit English students – until Education Secretary Gavin Williamson eventually reversed the policy and said “sorry for the distress” without accepting responsibility. In fact, central government mistakes and policy failures amid the Covid-19 pandemic have rarely been followed by acceptance of responsibility or blame, let alone an apology.

There is no simple definition of a political crisis. Crises range from policy failures to sex scandals, but responses to them employ a common arsenal of political tools – shifting the blame, denial, resigning – designed to kill news stories and preserve reputations.

But while shirking responsibility is perhaps the oldest political tactic in the book, apologising has always been rare. For example, following the Suez Crisis of 1956, Anthony Eden resigned in shame – yet he never accepted responsibility for his failings in Suez, and the official line for his resignation was that it was on grounds of ill health.

“His reputation might have been improved by a more straightforward acknowledgement of error,” says Ben Jackson, associate professor of modern history at University College, Oxford, of the stain Suez left on Eden’s reputation.

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But while Eden may never have taken responsibility, his resignation effectively closed the case. The subsequent Conservative government never opened an inquiry into the situation, and the incident was consigned to the history books.

This was a common tactic of the postwar era, when senior politicians would use resignation as a means to take the spotlight off their departments. They would accept responsibility, but without admitting personal fault. In 1947 the then chancellor, Hugh Dalton, resigned – not because of his mismanagement of that year’s sterling crisis, but because he had inadvertently leaked details of his upcoming budget to a journalist. And in 1982, when Peter Carrington resigned as foreign secretary over his department’s failure to predict Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands in 1982, it was widely seen not as a question of his own competence, but a matter of principle.

In the present day, the exponential rise of social media and a faster, more constant news cycle forces politicians to adopt aggressive media management strategies, while the externalisation of major government agencies has made blame easier to shift out of Westminster. The priority now is not to seek solutions or take responsibility for collective failure, but to judge whether they can as individuals weather the …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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