Had the lockdown in the UK been introduced a week earlier, the death toll from Covid-19 would have been half or even a quarter of what it is now, scientists have said. That means between 20,000 and 30,000 lives could have been saved. It’s a devastating counterfactual. Instead, the UK has the highest death count in Europe. In an (other) alternative reality, the prime minister would by now have admitted to making catastrophic errors in his handling of the pandemic, and apologised.
According to a survey carried out in 2011, the average Briton says sorry eight times a day. It is arguably one of the most versatile words in British English, deployed for a range of purposes, some contradictory to its official meaning. ‘Sorry’ is used just as often to precede an utterance designed to make someone else feel bad as it is to express genuine contrition. Like the words ‘polite notice’, it performs its claim rather than realising it. Apologies can be disingenuous, strategic or emotionally manipulative. Yet most of us demand them as a reparative minimum when we are wronged.
‘The readiness of the English to apologise for something they haven’t done is remarkable,’ Henry Hitchings writes in Sorry! The English and their Manners (2013), ‘and it is matched by an unwillingness to apologise for what they have done.’ Boris Johnson presents a classic case. He’s the sort who’ll gabble apologies on entering a room or sitting in a chair, an upper-class tic that gives the impression of excessively good manners. By mumbling vague apologies and failing to individuate his words, Johnson creates an aura of harmless stupidity that makes him seem like a friendly, slovenly underdog to a nation with a soft spot for incompetence.
Getting Johnson to apologise for his long list of actual misdemeanours is a different matter. His most notable blunders have been ruinous for others, yet have had little impact on his standing as a public figure. In 2017, he mistakenly claimed that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been training journalists in Iran at the time of her imprisonment (she was visiting family), remarks that strengthened her jailers’ case against her. A year later, he wrote that women wearing ‘the burka’ (he meant niqab) looked like ‘letterboxes’ or ‘bank robbers’. There was a 375 per cent surge in Islamophobic incidents the following week, with 42 per cent of abusers making reference to his comments.
After facing serious criticism, he eventually apologised in the House of Commons for the first incident: ‘I apologise for the distress, the suffering that has been caused by the impression that I gave that the government believed, that I believed, that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran in a professional capacity.’ In reference to the second case, he said on ITV:
I’ve already said sorry for any offence I have caused and I’ll say it again, but let me be very clear that I don’t set out to cause offence in what I’ve written … It’s always worth looking at the whole article and what I’m really intending to say, because actually it’s quite the opposite … You just need to go back and look at the context.
Similarly, when called on to apologise for the searingly racist and homophobic remarks made in his column at the Daily Telegraph, he said on Sky News: ‘I do feel very sad that people have been so offended by these words and I’m sorry that I’ve caused this offence.’
These formulations are better understood as ‘fauxpologies’. They co-opt the language and tone of an authentic apology, and share the demand for forgiveness, but evade responsibility for wrongdoing. One notable sub-variety often employed by Johnson is the back-handed apology – ‘I’m sorry if anyone took offence’ or ‘I’m sorry if you misunderstood me to mean …’ – which boomerangs the fault back to those who too easily take offence, or are prone to misinterpret things.
Another common species of fauxpology centres on an account of why the transgression was no such thing. Dominic Cummings’s violation of the lockdown guidelines, which has since been shown to have seriously undermined public compliance, led to him being granted an hour of primetime television to set out his apology. He gave a pathologically detailed account of why his failure to abide by rules designed to protect lives should instead be understood as evidence of his exemplary parenting.
If and when Johnson feels sufficiently pressured to apologise for the government’s handling of the pandemic, it’s likely he’ll choose the form of fauxpology most popular with politicians, and concede that ‘mistakes were made’ (Vice-President George H.W. Bush said it of the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986; President George W. Bush said it of the Iraq invasion in 2004). This places the blame with the mistakes themselves, absolving decision-makers in the same way as ‘accidents will happen.’ Either that or he’ll sidestep the issue by saying that an apology is not enough, or not appropriate, or nothing can bring back those who have died. For now, Johnson has offered the opposite of an apology: he’s ‘very proud’ of the government’s response to the pandemic, as if he expects our gratitude.
As Black Lives Matter protests continue, and statues of slave traders are felled, it’s no longer possible to ignore the injustices that are still waiting for apologies, and the ongoing cost of silence. Behavioural scientists have shown that the most important components of an effective apology are acknowledging responsibility and offering reparation. The problem with apologies isn’t that they’re empty, it’s that they’re morally exposing and loaded with promises of justice. That’s why politicians are so reluctant to give them.