Down with apologies!

It seems to me absurd for governments or individuals to issue apologies for offences they have not themselves committed, and most absurd of all to apologise now for something that happened before anyone now alive was born (such as slavery). Often, of course, what those demanding apologies from the innocent really want is not apologies but lucrative compensation, which is even more unattractive than it is absurd. It’s a measure of the triumph of political correctness over common sense that those on the receiving end of these ludicrous demands — for apologies and money-money — so rarely respond by telling these aggrieved characters to stop being so silly and to shut up.

It’s anyway almost a contradiction in terms to demand an apology from a government, even — or especially — for something that the government in question has actually done, since if a government has committed a sufficiently grave offence to require a public apology, it ought to resign, not just apologise. Hence of course Blair’s refusal to apologise for taking us to war on what is now almost technically known as a false prospectus. There’s no way of knowing whether Blair has privately deluded himself into believing, passionately or otherwise, that he didn’t deliberately or negligently mislead parliament, the public and the rest of the world over what was really known or not known about Saddam’s WMD: what is absolutely clear, though, is that if he were to admit to having done so by apologising for it, he would have to resign (and it may now have dawned on his ministerial colleagues that if the prime minister goes, the whole government goes!). I have a rather large reservation about this whole argument, though, because it implies that if the intelligence had been as Blair and Co. described it, and if large stockpiles of WMD had been found by the coalition forces in Iraq on their arrival, that would have meant that the war was legal: whereas it wasn’t, WMD or no WMD. No longer an easy point to get across.

And we now have the repulsive spectacle of the leader of the Conservative Party issuing instructions to the editor of the Spectator on what he may or may not publish in his magazine (which depends for its appeal on its liveliness, irreverence and apparent independence) and instructing him to go and make a grovelling apology to a whole city. It’s not hard to imagine what Iain Macleod, when he was editor of the Spectator, would have said and done if Sir A. Douglas Home or Edward Heath had tried to humiliate him and destroy his independence like that. I had thought and hoped that the amusing Boris Johnson, who much enlivens our otherwise pretty dreary political landscape, was made of sterner, or at any rate of chirpier, stuff. It would be a real pity if Michael Howard’s indefensible intervention were to establish the impossibility of a vigorous and independent-minded politician combining a front bench appointment with the editorship of a political weekly, at any rate while his or her party is in opposition. The editorial in question, after all, made a serious and valid point: whether in doing so it incidentally strayed across the boundaries of good taste, who is to say? De gustibus non disputandum. And the idea of apologising to a whole city is inherently comic.

However, for evidence of Boris Johnson’s essential decency and spirit we need go no further than his sad and funny reflections on the whole tragicomic Liverpool ‘penitential pilgrimage’ (his own description) in the current issue of his splendid, disgraceful magazine.

25 October 2004