Skip to Content


Say you’re sorry — but never apologise for anything you’ve actually done

Rod Liddle says that Gordon Brown’s contrition about the British children tragically deported to Australia is a very Noughties phenomenon — the perfectly pointless non-apology

18 November 2009

12:00 AM

18 November 2009

12:00 AM

Rod Liddle says that Gordon Brown’s contrition about the British children tragically deported to Australia is a very Noughties phenomenon — the perfectly pointless non-apology

I never knew it was Gordon Brown who sent all those kids off to Australia, packed them off and waved goodbye from the quayside, and now feels terribly bad about the whole thing. This deportation scheme, which ran from about 1920 to 1967, was designed to give British children from underprivileged backgrounds a new life in the former colony, which considered itself to be short of white folks, any white folks; too often, though, the children were torn from the comfort and familiarity of their neighbourhoods and, once abroad, exploited for their puny labour, and treated with what can only be described as the roughest of love. There were cases of abuse, although none of it, by the standards of the time, seemed like abuse then.

Gordon Brown was 15 years old when the programme ended, but he has nonetheless taken it upon himself to apologise for the behaviour of others. He is now, very officially, sorry that this stuff ever took place. That will come as a comfort to the expats — an apology from someone who had nothing to do with the scheme, who did not understand why it was undertaken, who bore no responsibility for it, who has never met anyone who was the victim of it. An apology of almost perfect pointlessness, then — rather as if I suddenly decided I ought to apologise for the Rape of Nanking. Almost, but not quite, perfectly pointless; the apology at least gives the Prime Minister the opportunity to show that he is human, that he can be contrite, that there are things which affect him on a personal level and which he can apologise for on behalf of all of us.

It is the quintessential example of the modern apology; a politician who is not remotely contrite apologising for something for which he had not the vaguest responsibility and for which, therefore, he cannot be blamed. A non-apology apology, then — an apology for something someone else did, and what’s more, did in the best of faith.

You might argue that Gordon Brown has plenty to apologise for long before he gets around to the iniquities which befell the deported children — not least for knowingly, wilfully, recklessly selling 60 per cent of Britain’s gold reserves at the bottom of the market and thus losing the nation an estimated £3 billion, something which we are all paying for. He did that, and knows that he did it and presumably — not being an utter and complete imbecile — knows that it was a calamitously wrong call. But he won’t apologise for the business with the gold. To do so would imply that he had made a mistake of which he was entirely cognisant, had realised his grave error and felt bad about it. So instead he apologises for something for which he was not responsible and gains kudos for being human and self-effacing. What a fabulous con — but one which is very au courant.

Right now the newspapers are busying themselves with reviews of the ‘noughties’, this vague and troublesome decade which we might remember without happiness as the antithesis to the optimism and vibrancy of the 1990s, when — suddenly, shockingly and rather wonderfully — a quarter of the world was freed from state socialist tyranny. That tyranny is something else Gordon could have apologised for, if he was of a mind. If he wished to apologise less for himself than for his party, but still appear suitably contrite. The Labour party’s support, be it tacit, covert or explicit, for the Soviet Union probably contributed, albeit in a very small way, to the longevity of that monstrous and incompetent regime. Perhaps, in the scheme of things, only by a month or two. But an apology right now for the behaviour of the party to which he has long belonged would have a certain meaning and would contain an admission of guilt from said party, which he leads. But no chance of that.

Instead he has done that very noughties thing and issued the meaningless apology, the modern equivalent of the 1970s’ ‘zipless fuck’, a memorable phrase coined by Erica Jong in what we have since been assured was a sort of zeitgeist novel, Fear of Flying. Hell, as the signifier of a decade, at least the ‘zipless fuck’ carried with it the promise of a certain excitement.

Not so the meaningless apology. Tony Blair, remember, apologised for the Irish potato famine, despite not having been a greengrocer at the time of the tragic event, nor seemingly understanding why it had occurred. It was enough for Blair simply to say: well, we — other people, obviously, from a different time — were wrong about the spuds. And in doing so he helped to justify Irish anger, fuelling the notion that we were an arrogant imperial power indifferent to the suffering of our poorest people.

Blair also apologised for slavery, despite never having held a whip in his life, nor owning leg irons, so far as I am aware. This was a particularly iniquitous public apology and has distorted history for a generation of schoolchildren. They are not told that the Africans — and in particular the Asanti of modern-day Ghana — controlled slavery and continued with it long after Britain had decided that it was morally and ethically repulsive (the first nation, incidentally, to have done so). They are not told that slavery existed in Africa long before Britain came along, nor that it continues to this day in Mauritania and Togo and Chad and, of course, the never-ending hell that is the Sudan — in fact, wherever Muslim governments hold sway.

Instead, so far as our educationalists are concerned, slavery was a British invention which began and ended with our involvement in the trade, and there’s an end to it — a reason for Africa and the Caribbean countries to wallow in victimhood and an all-encompassing excuse (along with colonialism) for their grotesque and unrelieved economic and social failure.

This is the meaningless apology as white lie, both metaphorically and literally. Of course Tony Blair did not apologise for the thing for which he was at the very least partly responsible, the illegal and catastrophic invasion of Iraq and the hundreds of thousands of people killed as a consequence. There was no contrition, not even the suggestion that he might have been wrong in good faith (which would be a very generous reading of history). Instead, he apologised for the potato famine and slavery — and also, bizarrely, for the treatment of the Maoris. Give him another couple of years and he would have apologised for the sacking of the monasteries and perhaps even continental drift and the movement of the tectonic plates. ‘It is a source of regret for me and indeed shame that Britain, as an island, took the decision to move tens of kilometres away from our friends and partners in the European Union. I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to all those who were in any way hurt, or disappointed, by the events of the last ice age.’

But he did not apologise for the stuff for which he was responsible: that is the last thing for which he would have said sorry. His apologies were easy and they cost him absolutely nothing; there was no real contrition involved because he was not the architect of the supposed iniquity.

The Australian premier Kevin Rudd has also apologised for what happened to those British kids. It may be that one day the Turks will apologise to Armenia, the Japanese properly apologise to Korea, descendants of the Duke of Buckingham apologise to the Yorkists and so on, ad infinitum; apologies which cost the person apologising nothing whatsoever and instead confer upon them intimations of magnanimity and decency. There is no point to any of it, other than political advantage to be wrung from events which happened so long ago that we cannot possibly hope to imagine
how they occurred in the first place.

Show comments