A politician's guide to apology
Illustration: Naomi Worth

It was late May when Dominic Cummings gave an apology in the Number 10 rose garden, reading his version of events from a sheet of paper. He adopted the calming voice of a father, spoke with the concision of a teacher, and waltzed in half an hour late, like he was preoccupied with bigger issues.

5.5 million of us tuned in for an apology – a literal captive audience, watching from the confines of our living rooms. Yet rather than any remorseful words, we got an extraordinary narrative, crafted around the evidence, and glossing ambiguously over unknowns.

“I believe that in all circumstances I behaved reasonably and legally”, he said. And that was that. The masses were subdued, the public convinced, and Dominic Cummings firmly instated as the nation’s sweetheart. Not quite.

For those who aren’t aware of his controversial cummings and goings, Cummings had travelled 260 miles to his parent’s house in Durham, whilst he and his wife were suffering from Covid-19 symptoms. Many felt this was against the government guidance he had helped to construct. This included a prohibition on ‘non essential’ travel and meeting others.

So, when Cummings was spotted listening to ABBA in his parents’ driveway, there was a palpable feeling of betrayal across the nation. He appeared to be flaunting the rules that many had made sacrifices to adhere to. This government was already in the firing line for locking down too late, testing too little and failing to source enough PPE for frontline staff. Public anguish was growing all the more, as the death toll climbed.

Surely an apology was due. A government is made up of people, after all, and people make mistakes. One of the first things children learn is the art of saying sorry. It can win back toys and friendship. It can turn anger into forgiveness. Importantly, it could have placated the public and retained a semblance of faith in the government, at a crucial time.

Yet, for some reason, apology is rarely on the cards for politicians. They are skilled orators: lets not forget that with six masterful monosyllables, they can convince a nation to stay home, stay safe, save lives. From Brexit to Social Distancing, we pick up their jargon like a dog to a bone. Yet most politicians would rather spin elaborate tales and squirm uncomfortably opposite Andrew Marr, than say sorry.

There are a few reasons for this. Most obviously, admitting fault will be used against them at the next election. It is not in the party’s interest to encourage apology, it is more beneficial for them to deny any culpability. Secondly, wrongdoing often leads to forced resignation. An abundance of MPs have lost coveted roles over mistakes, and no one wants to lose their job. I also wonder if some politicians are not the sort of people who apologise. A vocal minority have chosen their career paths in order to make themselves more powerful, rather than out of a duty to others.

It seems we have a chicken and egg scenario. What came first, the unapologetic personality, or a job which punishes owning up? Is our government full of unassailable, over-privileged egos who have never been taught to apologise? Or have we got a ‘cancel culture’ in politics where admitting wrongdoing has irrevocable consequences?

Not long ago, news was learnt of through newspapers. There were only so many voices with a platform to criticise, so it was much easier for politicians to cover up scandals. Now though, with the assent of social media, everyone can chuck their opinion into the melting pot, and learn of information instantly. This has led to greater pressure for government accountability, and it has made it difficult for politicians to hide from criticism.

However, whether we accept apologies is another matter. We are more respectful of the gap between public and private life than in previous decades. When Norman Scott accused Jeremy Thorpe of being in a relationship with him from 1961- before homosexual acts were legal – he was blackmailed with the threat of a scandal. When the facts emerged, they ruined Thorpe’s career. Conversely, Boris Johnson was elected as Prime Minister despite having a tumultuous personal life, including multiple affairs.

Nonetheless, apologies tend to lead to resignation, such as in the case of Rosie Duffield. The Labour frontbench MP apologised, before quitting her role, after it emerged that she had met her partner who was residing at a different property, in breach of lockdown rules. Whilst arguably an ill timed misdemeanor, is it fair that a lockdown walk cost the MP her job? Like Cummings, Duffield’s wrongdoing occurred in her free time. It seems members of parliament must live up to high expectations at all times, or else risk falling victim to a stray iPhone camera or a snooping pedestrian, ready to end their career with one viral tweet. Duffield’s resignation shows us that politicians don’t tend to get second chances. Admissions of fault may as well be a one way ticket home, so it’s no wonder that politicians rarely apologise for their actions.

The trouble is, when politicians fail to say sorry, the electorate grow disillusioned. Therefore ministers have found clever ways to manipulate language, in order to seem apologetic, without admitting fault. Apologies in the political arena are frequently structured in a way which apologises for our upset, rather than for the act in question. This enables MPs to distance themselves from culpability, whilst appearing remorseful. In 2010, when Nick Clegg raised tuition fees, contrary to his promise, he subsequently apologised. However, he phrased it to say that he was sorry for having “made a promise we weren’t absolutely sure we could deliver”, rather than for breaking his word.

Alas, when we waited for Dominic Cummings to sit in the rose garden and apologise, it was willfully naive. What he had to say read like a criminal witness statement. His omissions were telling. Where had Dominic focussed his attention, when writing it? What did the gaps in the story tell us?

The speech was predominantly descriptive, neatly segueing into opinion segments. He frequently started with ‘I’/ ‘She’, focalising the facts around the relevant active agent. This isn’t the structure of regular prose. We don’t tend to clinically dissect our thoughts into a feelingless narrative (paragraph 1) and justification (paragraph 2). This is the language of a person neatly explaining away the evidence that has come to light.

What Dominic Cummings is lacking is not vision, but the capacity to accept that he’s in the wrong. Most people are able to redeem themselves with a sincere apology. However, be it due to their nature, or the nature of their job, politicians are rarely seen accepting fault. Yet the question remains: would we accept his apology without him also offering up his job? One thing is clear: operating with integrity in the political arena is complex, more so than ever in the modern day.