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Boris Johnson and the awful art of the empty political apology

Boris Johnson brings tea for the press to drink outside his house in Thame. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The clamour for Boris Johnson to say sorry continues to grow. But, MIC WRIGHT asks, ‘what is the point of the political apology?’

Sorry, but this is going to be a thing about apologies.

Even worse, it’s going to be a thing about politicians and apologies. I can only apologise again. According to research commissioned by the Coca Cola Company earlier this yeah — yes, sorry, it’s probably not that scientific — on average, British people apologise seven times a day. That means I’ve used nearly half my quota in this paragraph alone. But while most of us are pretty free and easy with our apologies, when it comes to politicians, they tend to take Elton John a little too seriously: ‘Sorry’ really does seem to be the hardest word.

What makes the palaver of political apologies even worse is the media cycle that spins up on any occasion when an elected official is deemed to owe one. The British press loves the chance to pick over a potential political apology: Will the politician apologise? Should they have to? How long has the wait for an apology gone on so far? Who exactly is offended? Who are the people who are offended that some people were offended in the first place? Has political correctness gone even madder? Where is the potential apologiser now? What is the potential apologiser doing? Do they even look contrite?

Boris Johnson, the former Mayor of London and foreign secretary now returned to his natural role as a grotesquely over-paid controversy-stoking columnist for the Daily Telegraph, is the latest politician facing calls to make an apology. The issue is his off-hand, casually offensive and dog-whistling dismissal of women who wear the burka — of which there are essentially none in the United Kingdom — as reminiscent of ‘letter boxes’ and ‘armed robbers’. Since the column was published Johnson has steadfastly refused to apologise for the comments, providing great big handfuls of red meat to the giant squawking mouths of talk radio and the content-hungry columnists.

Meanwhile, a press pack has gathered outside Johnson’s house, awaiting his first public comment on the scandal, beyond mutterings delivered by the obsequious and anonymous ranks of ‘friends of Mr Johnson’. Rather than getting anything quotable, the reporters and cameramen assigned to hang around in front of Johnson Manor, were treated to some mugs of tea delivered by Johnson himself. That act of artificial mateyness has triggered off its own mini-cyclone of press stories. And Steven Bannon, the Baron Von Greenback of fostering far-right movements, used an interview with The Sunday Times to declare that Johnson has done absolutely nothing wrong, and his fellow backbench MP and Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg, condemned the Conservative Party’s investigation into the Johnson’s remarks as ‘a show trial’.

It seems a large slice of the British public agrees with Mogg and Bannon about Johnson’s comments. A ComRes survey, commissioned by The Sunday Express, found that 53% opposed him receiving any sanction for his comments, versus 40% who think he should be disciplined. Earlier in the week, both the prime minister and Conservative Party chairman, Brandon Lewis, urged Johnson to apologise. Perhaps bolstered by a sense that his comments have support in the country and had the effect he intended, he’s continued to refused to apologise. His latest Telegraph column is about stamp duty and contains not a word referencing the debate.

I strongly disagree with Bannon, Mogg or the 53% polled by ComRes, who seem to think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with what Johnson said. The comments were inflammatory, ill-judged and deliberately crass. But what interests me more, is the way the media and political commentators in general rush away from the substance of the debate into an almost abstract discussion of when, whether and how an apology should be made. It’s rarely clear what Johnson actually believes, he’s a political weathercock, twisting and turning in whatever direction he believes will gain him the most advantage, but it is clear that he is standing by his comments, which, it’s worth noting were part of a wider column arguing against the idea of burka bans.

What would be the point of an apology from Johnson? He wouldn’t mean it. Those who were offended by his words are unlikely to be mollified by it. His political rivals wouldn’t leave it at that and his allies don’t think he has anything to apologise for in the first place. Britain generally has a culture of apology as social lubricant rather than genuine contrition. It baffles our continental neighbours, especially the French and the Germans for who apologies are something you offer when you actually regret what you’ve done. The political variety of British apology is even more hollow. It’s simply a way of making a story go away, a magical means of getting something off the agenda, rather than an indication that someone is committed to doing better.

There’s no clearer case for the utter pointlessness of the political apology than Johnson’s career. It is a wasteland littered with hollow apologies. As foreign secretary, a post he discarded with all the grace of a driver throwing a McDonald’s bag from his window, he was forced to apologise in the Commons for casually asserting that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British woman imprisoned in Iran, had been ‘training journalists’, rather then simply being on a family holiday. Johnson’s heinous error was seized upon by the Iranian authorities and undoubtedly harmed Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case. It took a week of pressure before he apologised.

He’d obviously learned no lessons from his time in opposition. In 2004, he was made to go on an apology tour of Liverpool, while editing The Spectator, to make up for an article that accused the city of ‘wallowing’ in grief at the murder of Ken Bigley, who had been held hostage in Iraq. On the same trip, he was forced to apologise for other disgusting comments about Liverpool fans and the Hillsborough disaster. Then, in 2008, while campaigning to be Mayor of London, he had to apologise for a 2002 article in which he’d referred to black people as ‘picanninies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’.

It seems pretty clear that an apology from Boris Johnson is about as valuable as a Rolex watch purchased in a carpark from a man in a trench coat and about as sincere as estate agent showing you a bedsit in Basildon. More generally, the media’s desire to chase an apology isn’t really about solving the issues at the heart of a debate or getting real justice for people who have been subjected to bigotry. It’s about getting a scalp and feeding on a source of content. And I can only apologise — there, I’m now well into my daily apology quota — for being guilty of that myself.

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