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Apology Culture

Updated: Feb 5


It was the last question in the two-hour parliamentary session last Monday when Prime Minister Boris Johnson ‘answered’ questions about ‘partygate’. It came from Richard Thomson, Scottish National MP for Gordon on the Scottish Borders.


The Prime Minister said in his statement, “sorry for the things we…did not get right” and, “sorry for the way this…has been handled”, which is a generic non-apology that will mean absolutely nothing to anyone who heard it. What I and millions of others want to hear is: apart from getting caught out in all of this, what is the Prime Minister personally sorry and genuinely regretful for in his own conduct? (Hansard)


Richard Thomson put his finger on the lack of personal responsibility and the erosion of trust between Boris Johnson and the country that voted him into office in July 2019. Opinion polls suggest a further erosion of that trust.


Johnson’s personal and professional ‘mythomania’ (pathological lying) has been known for years. He jokes, he blusters, he ducks and dives and dodges. And his eyes? They are never still. They shift from side to side – desperately seeking some way to survive. The ‘ducking and diving’ reputation was confirmed when he repeatedly refused to be interviewed during the election. Even quotations from his school reports as a classics student at Eton suggest that ‘being affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility’ is a life-long habit. Boris Johnson seems incapable of being what Richard Thomson and so many before have asked of him - ‘ to be personally sorry and genuinely regretful for his own conduct’.


Lack of trust between leaders and people may already have had consequences for us all. There are those in the medical community who suggest that in some places, the low turnout to get vaccines is a response to an untrustworthy leader and his untrustworthy government. That non-compliance could threaten everyone’s health.


But a more important point about the moral vacuum at the heart of government was made last night on BBC Question Time by the crossbench peer, Victor Adebowale - Chair of the NHS Confederation. He said, ‘I was brought up to tell the truth and take responsibility and to look for that in examples of leadership. And what do you tell your children when they look up and see a kind of game being played? It’s about that stuff!’


So maybe nearer home we could all ask – how often do I and the people who voted for Johnson honestly say those most difficult of words, ‘I’m sorry’. How often are my relationships like those in the Commons where people pounce on each other demanding apologies, focusing on the extraction of an apology as a conquest rather than as a means to healing relationships? What sort of apology culture operates in our homes and our offices, in our churches? Are we, like Boris, avoiding saying, ‘I’m sorry that I did or said....’ Do we resort instead to that weasel apology word ‘if’ – “I’m sorry if I may have inadvertently....’ or transferred the blame, ‘I’m sorry if you feel I have been or done or said...’


Maybe it was Johnson’s speechwriter’s idea, not his – but he got one thing right this week. He said, ‘It isn’t enough to say sorry! We must look at ourselves in the mirror and we must learn!’







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