The Art of the Politician’s Apology


eric pickles

It’s a funny thing, a politician apologising. Hardly a rare thing, but a fairly rarefied art form in itself, pitched in a certain tone, and phrased in a certain way.

It occurred to me after Eric Pickles’ apology on the Andrew Marr show, yesterday morning. It has been framed in the media since as a mea cupla on behalf of the government, admitting failure on the flooding in Somerset. Which is strange, since that isn’t actually what he said.

Observe; the “apology” of the saintly Secretary of State for (submerged?) Communities and Local Government:

We made a mistake, there’s no doubt about that. We perhaps relied too much on the Environment Agency’s advice… Well I’ll apologise. I’ll apologise unreservedly. And I’m really sorry that we took the advice of what we thought we were dealing with experts.”

Apologetic, definitely. But look at what he’s apologising for. Not for failing to act, not for failing to dredge, not for letting the situation deteriorate. He apologised for listening to the bad people (the Environment Agency).

Now, I don’t really care whether the government or the Environment Agency are to blame for this. I don’t expect the people in Somerset, whose houses are presently underwater, care much either. I feel lucky that my home is warm and dry, but were I in their situation I expect I would prefer the government to be addressing the problem rather than playing the blame game, and covering their collective arse. I expect they urgently want to distract from the fact that they cut £100m from the flood defences budget.

But whatever.

An apology doesn’t solve a problem. For example the Lord Rennard situation. Clegg desperately wanted him to apologise for his strongly alleged harassment. Which is odd. If Lord Rennard didn’t do what was alleged, then he has nothing to apologise for. If he did do what was alleged, then how is an apology even close to being reparation or punishment enough?

It’s a funny thing, really, but within the political bubble apologies do seem to be the be-all and end-all. They are strenuously resisted at times, but when preferred a little penitence is presumed to right all wrongs. Though given the egos of which some politicians are possessed, perhaps it is a fairly big step.

Repentance, kept vague enough that it is difficult to identify what exactly the apology is for. Its that sort of semantic acrobatics which allows a politician to apologise without admitting guilt or responsibility (“I apologise if anyone was offended…“) or to, as Uncle Eric demonstrated, appearing to apologise for one thing whilst subtly shifting blame to someone else, like pleading guilty to a lesser offence, or “But sir, he made me do it!”

All of which leads us up to the inevitable. The ultimate political apology. I haven’t the time to dissect what difference it makes if the apology is sung, so let’s just enjoy the apologetic musical stylings of one Nicholas Clegg:

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