Angela Merkel did something remarkable this week: she said sorry. Having announced an Easter lockdown in Germany, the Chancellor partly reversed her decision. ‘This mistake is my mistake alone,’ she said, urging ‘all citizens to forgive’ her.
Was this a particularly groundbreaking speech? Perhaps not. But one thing is clear: it is exceptionally rare to hear a politician admit blame and take responsibility so explicitly, unconditionally and openly. And when it does happen, it is more often than not from a woman.
Last summer, Nicola Sturgeon apologised to pupils over the controversial exam results in a similar fashion to Merkel: ‘Despite our best intentions, I do acknowledge that we did not get this right and I'm sorry for that.’
Theresa May too was no stranger to apologies, both for the Windrush Scandal but also for losing the Conservative majority. In June 2017, Theresa May told MPs: ‘I got us into this mess, and I will get us out of it’, and was praised by Tory backbenchers for being ‘contrite and genuine’. Caroline Lucas immediately accepted wrongdoing after her proposal for an all-white female emergency cabinet, and Hillary Clinton said that ‘I'm sorry that we did not win this election’: the first presidential candidate to ever do so.
Is this just a coincidence that these are all female politicians? There could, of course, be gendered issues at play here; women apologise to show they care and exhibit empathy, whereas men don't want to apologise for fear of looking weak or vulnerable. In 2018, Jacinda Adern gave an emotional apology following the murder of Grace Millane, in which she fought back tears as she spoke about the ‘overwhelming hurt and shame’ that Grace ‘should have been safe here, and she wasn't’. It's hard to imagine Boris Johnson being able to give a similarly heartfelt speech.
Yet over the past year, policy failures amid the pandemic have almost never been followed by acceptance of responsibility or blame by either male or female politicians. Matt Hancock has repeatedly refused to apologise for unlawfully failing to publish Covid contracts. His Tory colleague Desmond Swayne would not admit to spreading misinformation about coronavirus. And Dido Harding has refused to concede responsibility for our abysmal and eye-wateringly expensive test and trace system.
The irony is that politicians often refuse to apologise because they believe it will kill news stories and preserve their reputations, but it actually does the opposite. Nicola Sturgeon immediately apologised for not wearing a mask at a funeral wake and the breach was soon forgotten about. On the other hand, the media circus around Dominic Cummings' Durham debacle raged for weeks; if he had just explained and apologised, we could have all moved on.
What's more, the pandemic has actually given politicians the perfect context in which to apologise. The circumstances have been so genuinely unpredictable and unprecedented that politicians have more wiggle room than usual to claim lack of foresight.
Yesterday, for example, Macron addressed the EU's vaccine failures in a televised interview in which he said:
‘Never in the history of mankind was a vaccine developed in less than a year. We didn't shoot for the stars. That should be a lesson for all of us. We were wrong to lack the ambition, lack the madness… We didn't go fast enough, strong enough on this.’
Although Macron doesn't directly say ‘sorry’, the admission ‘we were wrong’ is still refreshingly honest, and is likely to win him more respect than reprimands. Even Macron's strongest critic can't blame him for not knowing how quickly a vaccine would be developed.
The timing of apologies is also important. Research has shown that people are more likely to forgive people when an apology is offered immediately, and assume that late apologies are for the sake of public image rather than genuine concern. Tony Blair's apology for the UK's involvement in the Iraq war – 13 years later – was hardly going to regain public trust. And Chris Huhne's decision to spend a decade avoiding apologising for a speeding ticket led to far worse consequences than if he had just taken the points.
Time and time again history has shown us that Benjamin Disraeli's mantra ‘never apologise, never explain’ can be just as dangerous as taking responsibility. There is undeniably an art to a political apology (which can so easily seem disingenuous), but when done right, the simple act of saying sorry becomes a sign of strength, not weakness. Merkel was right to say sorry. Her fellow politicians should learn from her example.