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Thursday, November 19, 1998 Published at 09:16 GMT

UK Politics

The art of apologising

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

If there's one thing politicians are never accused of it's having an over-developed sense of remorse.

Most would rather spend a weekend stuck in a lift with John Major than admit they got something wrong or, sin of sins, made a mistake.

But suddenly there's a new political fashion for making apologies all over the place.

Paymaster General Geoffrey Robinson is the latest to be caught up in the fad. And he clearly didn't like it.

His one-minute apology to the Commons after being found guilty of breaking parliamentary rules on his business dealings was verging on the contemptuous.

[ image: Would you take a 1m donation from this man?]
Would you take a 1m donation from this man?
Others, most notably Tony Blair, have carried it off more successfully.

The prime minister started the trend when he apologised for accepting a million quid from Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone for the Labour coffers.

His approach, which amounted to saying "hey guys, I made a mistake, but do I look like someone who would do anything dodgy", worked wonders and got him off the hook.

And New Labour seems to have become addicted to the practice. So much so that Downing Street advisors have been accused of drafting apologies for the Emperor of Japan for his country's treatment of British POWs in WWII, and Argentine leader Carlos Menem for starting the Falklands war.

The disease even crossed the Atlantic and Bill Clinton, after at first refusing to show any signs of regret for his antics with Monica Lewinsky, suddenly embarked on a coast to coast self-immolation tour.

Only disgraced former minister Ron Davies seems to have decided that his "lapse of judgement" was so grievous that a simple apology would not do the trick.

Of course it is also possible to overdo it in the other direction.

Former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke offered his instant resignation after he was conned into singing Oh My Darling Clementine on an Irish chat show shortly after the Enniskillen bombing.

And Hartley Booth, the long-forgotten successor to Mrs Thatcher as MP for Finchley, quit his government job when he had done nothing wrong except harbouring unworthy thoughts about his Commons secretary.

Still, like most fashions, the fad for apologising is certain not to last too long. Like all governments before it, the longer Labour is in power the more it will have to apologise for and the less eager it will be to own up.

Like all ministers, Trade Secretary Peter Mandelson is eager to demonstrate his commitment to the new technologies.

[ image: Peter Mandelson: Nobody mention technophobia]
Peter Mandelson: Nobody mention technophobia
Most recently he pledged to make "electronic commerce" a central plank of the government's forthcoming White Paper on competitiveness.

In a gushing press release, earlier this month he declared: "in the next century the Internet will become the universal medium in trading and commerce.

"We need to be ahead of the game to ensure that our systems are up to date blah, blah, blah."

And what was the date on the press release issued by his department of trade officials? - 4 November 1988.

Never mind millennium compliance - what about decade compliance.

Although Alun Michael was the prime minister's first choice to step into Ron Davies' shoes as Labour leader in Wales, frantic efforts were made to find an acceptable alternative if he failed to bow to his master's command.

Unfortunately for Wales, Glenys Kinnock decided she preferred her job as a Euro-MP and declined the offer.

[ image: Cherie Booth: Protecting her family with crystals and furniture]
Cherie Booth: Protecting her family with crystals and furniture
First it was magic crystals that were keeping Cherie Blair safe from harmful rays from television sets, computers and, even other people - now we learn she has invited a feng shui consultant into Downing Street.

Feng shui, as all new agers worth their organic salt know, is the age-old Chinese art of arranging your furniture to keep away evil spirits.

Nothing new here, Tony Blair has been doing it ever since he was elected - mainly by leaving his cabinet outside.

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