Regret: it's official

Can a government ever apologise for its actions, and mean it?

Quick, pass the Kleenex. There has been an outbreak of contrition among our elected representatives. And not for such trifling matters as fiddling expenses or keeping a couple of idle family members on the payroll - this is serious.

On 21 February the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, appeared to apologise to parliament for Britain's role in allowing US "extraordinary rendition" flights to stop on British soil. The previous week, Australia's new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, had apologised on behalf of earlier governments that had "inflicted profound suffering, grief and loss" on the country's Aboriginal population. And last year, the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, hit the headlines with his tearful apology for the capital's involvement in the slave trade.

Saying sorry in this way has great symbolic value: a weepy speech in front of the assembled media is a cheap, uncheerful way for ambitious politicians to show concern and identify themselves with "social justice".

But the formula starts to unravel on closer inspection. For a start, an apology also implies a change in behaviour or outlook. As individuals, we can agree that slavery, racism and flying people around the world to be tortured in secret locations are wrong. A government, however, cannot feel remorse; it is defined by its actions. And official apologies highlight the extent to which our political culture favours illusory emotion.

Take Rudd's apology to the Aborigines. In the absence of any significant ideological differences between Australia's two main parties - as in Britain, both are keen free marketeers - Rudd has chosen to define his government with a sense of moral, rather than political, purpose. But unless he is willing to address the economic conditions that make an Aborigine three times more likely to be unemployed than the national average, his apology has little meaning - except, perhaps, as a form of collective therapy for the country's guilt-ridden white population.

What's more, apologies for past wrongdoing can be deeply ahistorical. Apologising for the slave trade removes the historical narrative - the exploitation of workers as a defining characteristic of capitalism, for example - and replaces it with a psychological one, that of redemption. In doing so, it reinforces the authority of the institutions that committed the crime. If a political system can "learn" from the error of its ways, there is no need for us to change the system.

With Rudd or Livingstone, we are also faced with a bizarre prospect: an elected representative apologising on behalf of one part of his constituency to another. How can this be done without alienating the recipients? It can't. Paradoxically, it turns a whole section of society into "victims", negating their individual agency while blaming them for any future underachievement. We've said sorry; what more do they want?

Then there is the question of sincerity. A closer look at Miliband's statement reveals that he actually said: "I am very sorry indeed to have to report to the House . . ." Rather like a naughty child - as befits his perma-schoolboy looks - David, it seems, was only sorry he'd been found out.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters