Jonathan Bartley

The politics (and theology) of apology

By Jonathan Bartley
November 16, 2012

Everywhere we look at the moment, apologies (or calls for them) are in the air. Over child abuse allegations, over statistics in the Scottish Parliament, most likely over the police and crime commissioner election mess across England and Wales - and, of course, ubiquitously in the recent party political conference season.

Apologies come in all shapes and forms. Sometimes they are personal. Sometimes they are public. Quite often they are political.

The apology can even be made on behalf of others – like Tony Blair’s 1997 apology from the British state over the Irish potato famine, or David Cameron’s more recent apology to Liverpool fans and their families at Hillsborough “on behalf of the nation”.

But afterwards the question always hangs in the air “so what does your sorrow really mean?” This was why Blair stopped short of a full apology for Britain’s part in the transatlantic slave trade – because it opened up the way for potential claims to reparations.

The Christian understanding of the stuff of apology and forgiveness is that it should be restorative. True sorrow is not mere words, nor a soft option. It means making amends for the wrong that was done.

But more than that, the word ‘repentance’ in the Hebrew, carries with it the idea of turning around and heading in another direction. It isn’t just a matter of making things right, but setting oneself on a new course.

If this is the standard by which the quality of apology should be measured, it raises all sorts of questions about how we should view political apologies such as Nick Clegg’s attempt to draw a line under his broken tuition fees pledge, and chief whip Andrew Mitchell’s (ultimately failed, in political terms) apology for his insults – whatever they actually were - to a policeman at the gates of Downing Street.

Political apologies are notoriously cheap and slippery. Following its 1997 election humiliation the Conservative Party said it was sorry for the “appearance” of arrogance – not the arrogance itself.

Making things right again was purely a self-interested exercise which revolved around restoring the party’s electoral fortunes. The change of direction was little more than a resolve to appear less superior - not actually embrace humility. And this has now come back to haunt it.

It was not Andrew Mitchell’s use of the F-word to the policeman (although it is a criminal offence) at that was the most politically damaging. It was the alleged use of the word “pleb” – something which reawakened the old caricature of the ‘nasty party.’

Closer inspection of Nick Clegg’s slice of humble pie on tuition fees also reveals a bit of political trickery. The Deputy Prime Minister said he was sorry for having promised something which he couldn’t deliver - not for actually breaking the pledge of which he made so much at the 2010 election.

It’s a bit like being unfaithful to a spouse, and then apologising for making your marriage vows. The regret revolves around making a promise to be faithful, not the infidelity. The ‘repentance’ is to never make a binding vow again which might cause you problems in the future.

Theologian Tryon Edwards has suggested right actions in the future are the best apologies for bad actions in the past. In that sense, true apologies are yet to be forthcoming in many areas of public life today.


© Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.