'Sorry' has come to mean 'Don't blame me'

The political accounts can be settled only by a climactic, theatrical moment of emotional cleansing

By Brian Cathcart

The Independent

18 July 2004

Thirty-odd years ago, when Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were digging the Watergate dirt for The Washington Post, someone coined the term "non-denial denial".

This described the practice, elevated to an art by the Nixon White House, of framing statements that gave every appearance of being forthright denials but which, when subjected to the close textual analysis for which the average reader has no time, contained no denial at all.

Recent years have seen the arrival of a companion device: the non-sorry apology.

In our confessional age public figures are sometimes required to express regret, however little they may feel it, and the result is often a sentence which, pared of its frills, says roughly: "I am sorry you feel I have done wrong."

"I am sorry" sounds contrite and so does "I have done wrong", but if we focus on the words in between it becomes clear that the sentence actually means: "It's a pity you are choosing to take it this way." The apology is non-sorry; in fact it is an accusation.

Which brings us to Tony Blair in the House of Commons last Wednesday, and a new entry for The Dictionary of Political Phrase and Fable, on the theme of responsibility. Read this, from his comments on the Butler report:

"As I shall say later, for any mistakes made, as the report finds, in good faith, I of course take full responsibility, but I cannot honestly say I believe getting rid of Saddam was a mistake at all."

Eh? The first impression is, frankly, that it's quite a tangle for something he seemed to be reading from a script (and also that it is curious to see the head of a government which wilfully lopped qualifying phrases off intelligence assessments suddenly relying so heavily on such phrases).

What is Blair saying? There is definitely an "I take responsibility" in there (in fact a "full" one, with added "of course") and there is also a "for any mistakes made". The casual listener or reader, therefore, might be forgiven for thinking Blair was putting his hand up and taking the blame.

The "any" in "any mistakes", though, is unsettling, since it could mean he does not accept that mistakes have been made. And there is the awkward "as the report finds, in good faith", which calls in aid Lord Butler's view that Blair's people did not know they were doing things that the rest of us would think were wrong.

Finally we have the rider about getting rid of Saddam, which is the Prime Minister's way of saying: "All this Butler stuff does not matter a toss because the right thing to do was get rid of Saddam, and that's what I did."

To sum up, then, what Tony Blair was really telling the House of Commons and the country was that he is ready to take responsibility for mistakes whose existence he does not necessarily concede and which, even if they did happen, were committed innocently and aren't important anyway.

It's not exactly "The buck stops here", nor is it even the pro-war columnist's laughably grudging "Mea culpa, if that's what you want".

It is more like the young George Washington saying to his father: "About that apple tree which may or may not have been chopped down, and which was probably the victim of an accident or misunderstanding, I naturally take full responsibility if I have to, though frankly in an orchard that size one less tree makes no difference." Blair's words, in fact, are no more than lip service and we should all feel insulted by the implied contempt.

As was pointed out stingingly in The Independent last week, in the eyes of this Government "responsibility" is for job-seekers and single parents and not for the ruling classes.

It was also asserted that if the Prime Minister is to put the Iraq controversy behind him he needs a catharsis, and that is what is really at stake here. Responsibility means something. It has consequences which in this case might be cathartic, and Blair has ducked them.

It may seem an irrational notion, that the political accounts can be settled and calm can be restored only by a climactic, theatrical moment of emotional cleansing, but the principle is simple and practical. Whoever was ultimately responsible for a set of mistakes which had such momentous results should resign or at least apologise, and then the Government of the country might be able to proceed on a proper basis of trust.

And just because the mistakes were apparently made collectively does not mean that no one is ultimately responsible, for even where there is "group think", someone runs the group. (Where a document is written by a committee, too, someone must have "ownership" of it, though John Scarlett's avowed ownership of the 45-minute dossier seems no longer to apply.)

It is precisely this problem that Blair's words set out to finesse. Just as Nixon's band of charlatans was content with the appearance of a denial, so the Prime Minister, in true lawyer's fashion, gave the appearance of taking responsibility while ensuring that he accepted none of the consequences.

This, like Watergate, is bad for public trust in government and politics and, as Robin Cook observed, it is also ultimately bad for Blair, whose blithe assertions that he has nothing to be sorry about leave him looking more and more out of touch with reality.

In his charmless way, of course, the Prime Minister has reminded us of something he has been frank about in the past, which is that he is prepared to answer before only one judge, and it is not Hutton or Butler, nor Parliament nor even the Almighty, but the British electorate, voting in a general election.

If responsibility must be taken, thinks the man of two landslides, that is where it will happen. Last week's by-elections suggest that the voters can hardly wait.