There’s no formal league table measuring what most annoys the public about their elected politicians. But if there were, then ‘not apologising for mistakes’ would surely be near the top.
Pressed to define the exact nature of their complaint, voters would probably say that they were even more annoyed by ‘non-apology apologies’, where the language used is equivocal at best, insincere at worst.
Certainly, I can recall nothing as direct or as apparently contrite as the words uttered by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week, both in the Bundestag and later on national television. This followed her screeching U-turn, in which she abandoned the plan — announced barely a day earlier — to shut down the country over Easter in an attempt to break the spread of the coronavirus.
‘This mistake is mine alone,’ said Merkel, adding: ‘I ask both the public and you, dear colleagues, for forgiveness.’
Compare and contrast, as those old exam papers used to say, with the statement also made last week by the French President, Emmanuel Macron, when challenged over his own recent far from stellar performance over the virus.
‘This mistake is mine alone,’ said Angela Merkel, adding: ‘I ask both the public and you, dear colleagues, for forgiveness’
‘I can tell you that I have no mea culpa to make, no remorse, and no sense of failure,’ said Macron.
Even judged by the French President’s own extraordinary arrogance and pride, this was a new level of imperviousness to criticism. And, while every character is different (few more so than Merkel and Macron), I don’t think it’s coincidental that the one making that spectacular apology is a woman, and the other refusing to concede any error is a man.
Psychologists have long observed that, in general, females are more ready to apologise than males.
This may be for primordial reasons. Because of their higher testosterone levels, men are stronger and more prone to violence than women. A greater female readiness to express contrition may therefore have emerged out of a need for self-preservation and to avoid physical harm.
This trait would persist even in households where couples never come to blows, and where the male would never dream of continuing an argument with his fists.
If we think about our own lives and those of other households we know, I suspect it would reveal the women — again, in general, not invariably — to be more conciliatory than the men.
And that conciliation, rather than confrontation, tends to be the behaviour more often displayed by female politicians than by their male colleagues.
To which you might immediately respond: what about Margaret Thatcher? She was certainly confrontational. But she also knew when, and how, to apologise.
‘I can tell you that I have no mea culpa to make, no remorse, and no sense of failure,’ said Emmanuel Macron
In a BBC interview with David Dimbleby, on the night before the 1987 general election, a clearly tired Mrs Thatcher snapped about people who ‘drool and drivel that they care’ (when asked by the presenter why she didn’t show more sympathy for those who had lost their jobs). Dimbleby sharply retorted that her use of the words drool and drivel ’embodied’ precisely what he had suggested.
Chastened, the prime minister twice apologised: ‘I’m sorry I used those words … I’m very sorry.’
Somehow I couldn’t imagine a male politician apologising so rapidly — although, admittedly, it is also unlikely that any prime minister other than Margaret Thatcher would have used such language in the first place.
But in both cases, she was direct and unambiguous. And it’s the almost lawyerly language of so many political ‘apologies’ that grates.
No more so than that of Tony Blair — himself a lawyer before entering politics — when it emerged that the invasion of Iraq, to which he had committed British troops, had been based on false claims about ‘weapons of mass destruction’.
There can be no more extraordinary example of a male politician’s lack of contrition than Alex Salmond’s announcement that he has set up and will lead a new Scottish political party, Alba
Blair declared, in inimitable style: ‘I have searched my conscience, not in the spirit of obstinacy, but in genuine reconsideration … For any mistakes made in good faith, I, of course, take full responsibility.’ (So, not sorry.)
The phrase ‘good faith’ is widely used in legal argument, but when used by politicians to defend their worst decisions, it seems also designed to create the impression that they are ‘good’ people.
Something similar applies to that other perennial standby in modern political discourse: ‘It was a genuine mistake.’
This has two almost subliminal purposes: to suggest that the person speaking is ‘genuine’ and that no deviousness had taken place. A variation of this is: ‘It was an honest mistake.’
This was used by Theresa May and, to be fair, she is an honest woman. But not the apologising sort. I fear we will never hear Mrs May say sorry for failing to attend the public funeral of a predecessor as home secretary, Leon Brittan, nor even sending a representative.
This gave credence to the malign falsehood — spread by a man now in jail for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice — that the late Lord Brittan had been some sort of molester.
Speaking of which, there can be no more extraordinary example of a male politician’s lack of contrition than Alex Salmond’s announcement that he has set up and will lead a new Scottish political party, Alba. The former leader of the Scottish National Party was acquitted on all 12 charges of sexual assault for which he had been tried a year ago.
But his own defence lawyer, Gordon Jackson, had told the court, in respect of Mr Salmond’s treatment of women working with him: ‘He behaved badly. I’m not here to defend him, but attempted rape? It doesn’t fit.’
Later, Jackson was filmed on a train, describing his client as ‘an objectionable bully’ and ‘a sex pest … but he’s not charged with that.’
Boris Johnson in fact had his own version of the sudden U-turn for which Merkel has just issued an abject apology: when he ‘cancelled Christmas’ only days after declaring it would be ‘inhumane’ to do so
Tony Blair declared, in inimitable style: ‘I have searched my conscience, not in the spirit of obstinacy, but in genuine reconsideration… For any mistakes made in good faith, I, of course, take full responsibility.’ (So, not sorry.)
In fact, Salmond, according to opinion polls, is now even more unpopular in Scotland than the ‘English’ Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. But ‘Wee Eck’ just cannot bear not being at the centre of the political stage, still less concede that he has done anything to apologise for.
And what of Mr Johnson? Is he a Merkel or a Macron? When the UK’s Covid-19 death toll passed 100,000 two months ago, the PM declared: ‘I’m deeply sorry for every life that has been lost.’ Which, of course, is not the same as admitting any mistakes.
And saying sorry for ‘every’ life lost is essentially meaningless.
Mr Johnson in fact had his own version of the sudden U-turn for which Merkel has just issued an abject apology: when he ‘cancelled Christmas’ only days after declaring it would be ‘inhumane’ to do so.
Johnson refused to apologise for that, saying only: ‘We, of course, bitterly regret the changes that are necessary, but, alas, when the facts change you have to change your approach.’
What about Margaret Thatcher? She was certainly confrontational. But she also knew when, and how, to apologise
That did not go down well. By contrast, Angela Merkel’s spectacularly self-lacerating apology seems to have been a political bullseye.
The leading German tabloid newspaper, Bild, a stern critic of her recent performance, declared: ‘Respect!’ The co-leader of the opposition Green party in the Bundestag, Katrin Göring-Eckardt, pronounced that the Chancellor had performed ‘a service to democracy’.
Of course, Merkel, as her long career at the top has frequently demonstrated, is a tremendously wily politician. So her unprecedented act of public self-criticism evokes the reaction ascribed to the Austrian foreign minister Metternich when he heard of the death of that most cunning of French diplomats, Talleyrand, in 1838: ‘I wonder what he meant by that?’
And, as the journalist Matthew Karnitschnig observed, German MPs who were preparing to batter Merkel in parliament over her recent erratic policymaking ‘instead found themselves swinging at air… Years from now, few will remember why she apologised, only that she had the courage to stand up and say in humble tones and without reservation: ‘I was wrong.’
What makes it so difficult for male politicians to adopt such an approach, is, I suggest, pride. For pride is a very male sin. Of all the current generation of political leaders, President Macron is the most glaring example of this characteristic. And, as we all know, pride comes before a fall.