A good apology can work wonders in improving relations between individuals and between groups. In acknowledging the wrong, taking responsibility for it, and doing something about it, one can repair the identities of both the offender and the offended. The person apologising is no longer a threat, and the one receiving the apology is no longer denigrated, allowing the two to come together in a new and more positive way.
The problem is that yesterday’s statement offered by Boris Johnson was not a good apology. It was full of justifications and it offered nothing in the way of actions. Indeed it was not an apology at all, for it didn’t accept that an offence had been committed in the first place. Rather it was a classic example of the political non-apology, which takes the rhetorical form of saying sorry (and indeed prominently includes words like “I am sorry” and “I apologise”), but which ultimately attributes blame to the other rather than taking it upon oneself. Far from repairing relations, it compounds the original offence and makes things still worse.
We are all familiar with non-apologies of the “I’m sorry if you were offended” sort, where the import is that you were unreasonable in taking offence, rather than that I was unreasonable in what I said or did. This logic is usually implicit and rarely spelled out, although the Texas Republican congressman Joe Barton famously apologised for his defence of BP during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, saying: “If anything I said this morning has been misconstrued to the opposite effect, I want to apologise for that misconstruction.”
Johnson’s offering may be somewhat more camouflaged, but it is equally brazen in its attribution of blame. As ever with non-apologies, he starts by saying “I want to apologise”. Then, after acknowledging the rage of those who “think” that Covid regulations were broken by Downing St, Johnson insists that “when I went into that garden just after six on 20 May 2020 … I believed implicitly that this was a work event”. He further insists that he was right since “it could be said technically to fall within the guidance”. However, “there are millions and millions of people who would not see it that way”. People, he added, who have “suffered terribly”. Finally, Johnson offers his “heartfelt apologies” to these people (and to the House of Commons).
According to this statement, the problem does not lie in anything Johnson did. The problem lies in the inability of the public to appreciate the facts – and if Johnson erred in any way, it was in not appreciating just how wrong the public can be. To add insult to injury, even the suffering of the public is weaponised against them to imply that this was associated with their inability to think straight. Ultimately, then, when Johnson mouths the words “heartfelt apologies”, he is actually saying sorry for the flaws of others.
Not only is this the opposite of a genuine apology – it has the opposite effect to a genuine apology in terms of its impact on social relations. The sense that there is “one law for them and another for us” has resulted in a catastrophic and enduring lack of trust. The creation of in- and outgroups becomes particularly toxic when the outgroup is seen as a threat to ingroup members. Nothing signifies threat quite like the sense that others view you with contempt. And the prime minister’s non-apology communicates contempt for the public in at least three ways.
There is direct contempt in the claim that the public is incapable of understanding the guidance. Then, there is indirect contempt in assuming that anyone might be gullible enough to believe that Johnson went into his garden and didn’t realise a party was going on, especially when his own principal private secretary had emailed staff to tell them about the party. To compound it all, there is contempt in the notion that Johnson’s statement constitutes any sort of apology and that we should now accept it, shut up, and let the internal inquiry run its course.
All in all, this tawdry episode does nothing to improve relations. On the contrary, it serves only to confirm Johnson as someone who stands apart from and against the public. That isn’t good for the Conservatives. But nor is it good for our democracy in the face of such an acute crisis.