On 10 August, the country’s attention was briefly diverted by a highly unusual occurrence. After students in the most deprived areas of Scotland had their exam results unfairly downgraded, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon admitted that the Scottish government made a mistake: “Despite our best intentions, I do acknowledge we did not get this right and I’m sorry for that.”
For such a short phrase, it is surprising how little “I’m sorry” crops up in the UK political sphere. There was not an apology in sight in Westminster less than a week later, when a similar system hit English students – until Education Secretary Gavin Williamson eventually reversed the policy and said “sorry for the distress” without accepting responsibility. In fact, central government mistakes and policy failures amid the Covid-19 pandemic have rarely been followed by acceptance of responsibility or blame, let alone an apology.
There is no simple definition of a political crisis. Crises range from policy failures to sex scandals, but responses to them employ a common arsenal of political tools – shifting the blame, denial, resigning – designed to kill news stories and preserve reputations.
But while shirking responsibility is perhaps the oldest political tactic in the book, apologising has always been rare. For example, following the Suez Crisis of 1956, Anthony Eden resigned in shame – yet he never accepted responsibility for his failings in Suez, and the official line for his resignation was that it was on grounds of ill health.
“His reputation might have been improved by a more straightforward acknowledgement of error,” says Ben Jackson, associate professor of modern history at University College, Oxford, of the stain Suez left on Eden’s reputation.
But while Eden may never have taken responsibility, his resignation effectively closed the case. The subsequent Conservative government never opened an inquiry into the situation, and the incident was consigned to the history books.
This was a common tactic of the postwar era, when senior politicians would use resignation as a means to take the spotlight off their departments. They would accept responsibility, but without admitting personal fault. In 1947 the then chancellor, Hugh Dalton, resigned – not because of his mismanagement of that year’s sterling crisis, but because he had inadvertently leaked details of his upcoming budget to a journalist. And in 1982, when Peter Carrington resigned as foreign secretary over his department’s failure to predict Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands in 1982, it was widely seen not as a question of his own competence, but a matter of principle.
In the present day, the exponential rise of social media and a faster, more constant news cycle forces politicians to adopt aggressive media management strategies, while the externalisation of major government agencies has made blame easier to shift out of Westminster. The priority now is not to seek solutions or take responsibility for collective failure, but to judge whether they can as individuals weather the storm.
Will Jennings, professor of political science and public policy at the University of Southampton, identifies an all-weather plan, which he calls the “staged retreat”, that is now deployed in most political crises.
The first step is to deny that the problem exists. The second, if the story persists, is to acknowledge the crisis without accepting responsibility. The final stage, if it gets that far, is to find a person or an organisation to take the blame. Ofqual and Public Health England are the most recent victims of this tactic.
While Professor Jennings’s research identifies apologies as a good tactic for killing off media firestorms, there are cases in which an apology is not enough. When Nick Clegg apologised, in September 2012, for his U-turn on tuition fee policy during the coalition government, the loss of trust was so complete that perhaps no apology would have been sufficient. The apology itself, however genuine, was so inadequate that it became a derisive meme.
This confirms one important rule of political apologies: gauge the atmosphere. In this respect, Scotland is different from the rest of the UK, in that it is not as polarised.
Gerry Stoker, professor of politics and governance at the University of Southampton, says the SNP is in a unique position in Scotland, in that there is “virtually no opposition”. With a Scottish parliamentary election next year, Sturgeon can both afford to apologise, and benefit from doing so. Boris Johnson, on the other hand, faces a revitalised opposition, and needs to hold on to the confidence of his party and his voters. The voters who loaned the Conservatives their votes in 2019 will do so in 2024 only if the political aims they voted for are achieved.
In a more exposed position, politicians such as Johnson tend to follow the doctrine of “never apologise, never explain”.
There is a gendered aspect to this mantra. Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, says the apologies of men and women can be regarded differently. In many (but certainly not all) cases, women apologise to show that they care, whereas men feel apologising puts them in an inferior or weaker position. Men try to appear strong, at the risk of seeming callous, while women try to show their empathy, at the risk of being seen to apologise too much. “Obviously we’re all interested in power, we’re all interested in connection,” says Tannen, “but very often women would be focused on the connection level, when men would be focused on the power level”.
This goes some way to explaining the huge variation in what politicians apologise for. Jacqui Smith, for example, resigned as Home Secretary during the 2009 expenses scandal and apologised in the House of Commons for wrongly designating her family home and for her husband – whom Smith hired as her personal aide, on a parliamentary salary – having claimed for two pornographic films. Then energy secretary member Chris Huhne, on the other hand, spent a decade avoiding the blame for a 2003 speeding penalty, refusing to comment when allegations surfaced in May 2011, failing to resign from cabinet until 2012 and apologising only in March 2013 after his political career had ended and he had been sentenced to eight months in prison.
Politicians have always been able to come back from a crisis – Carrington went on to become the Secretary General of Nato in 1984, while Dalton became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1948 – but in recent years, the recovery time appears to have shortened. Priti Patel was appointed Home Secretary less than two years after resigning as international development secretary over unauthorised meetings with Israeli authorities in 2017. Gavin Williamson was appointed Education Secretary a mere two months after he was dismissed as defence secretary in 2019 following a leak from the National Security Council (for which he denies all responsibility).
But politicians may be able to weather storms in the short term, public opinion is cumulative. Stoker’s research has illuminated a trend: “There’s not an immediacy in the way that the public reacts. There’s a bit of a lag, and then there’s a story that develops.”
Public opinion was fairly divided, for example, over military intervention in Iraq in 2003. Tony Blair still won the 2005 election with 58.9 per cent of the vote. But his reputation and legacy were permanently scarred by the war. With his dishonesty to Parliament, and the complete lack of apology until 2016, Blair’s decision over Iraq is now integral to the public memory of his period in office.
The popular narrative does not form overnight. Stoker ran focus groups throughout the first phase of lockdown in the UK which showed that the discussion rarely turned to contemporary issues until a popular narrative had been cemented.
For example, Dominic Cummings seemed to have survived the initial media scrutiny after his trip to Barnard Castle in April. At the height of the scandal, Stoker’s team ran a focus group on public trust as part of the TrustGov project, but the discussion barely touched the Cummings affair. Only in later focus groups, on 23 June and 16 July, did the discussion turn to Cummings, after the popular story had been told and retold by the general public on social media and at the dinner table. By the end of May, 68 per cent of those surveyed by YouGov thought Cummings had broken the lockdown rules, while 59 per cent believed he should resign.
The political apology is an art. Used at the right time, in a favourable context, it can command respect. Misjudged or mistimed, it can give the impression of a lack of empathy or the avoidance of responsibility, and do more harm than good.
What Jennings and Stoker’s work suggests is that the country is, quite sensibly, still coming to a consensus on its government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. It may be months yet before there is a consistent narrative. And while the opposition will demand apologies and explanations at every turn, ministers will issue them only if they think it expedient to do so.