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The need to apologise

By: Mike Johnson

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SAYING SORRY used to be the method of apologising. I was brought up to believe you only said it when you truly regretted some deed or word, but, for some of us, as Elton John sang in the 1970s, “sorry seems to be the hardest word.”

These days, according to a survey by a leading insurance company, the word is uttered 368 million times a day in the UK alone. We say it to partners, to strangers, to our children and to our colleagues at work. It has become an alternative to saying, “I beg your pardon”, as in “I’m sorry I didn’t catch what you said”, or when we bump into someone. Sometimes we even say it when they bump into us and it’s not our fault. Indeed, the survey found that saying sorry for actually having done something wrong is bottom of the list of reasons why people use the word.

Apologies are sometimes made long after the event to which they refer. We may apologise to a parent for some childhood transgression, which has troubled us in later life. Politicians often use them in respect of the actions of others but rarely in respect of their own.

Corteous Orientals

Among the first modern-day apologists were the Japanese. Maybe, as Orientals, they are generally more courteous than westerners. In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, the then Japanese Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama, apologised to people who had suffered at the hands of his countrymen. There followed a period of confusion as to whether this was a personal apology or was made with the agreement of the entire Japanese government.

There followed, three years later, another apology by his successor, Ryutaro Hashimoto, in which he offered “an expression of deep remorse and heartfelt apology.” This was accepted by the West as heartfelt and helped to restore Japanese dignity.

The German nation has always felt the need to make amends for its treatment of Jews in the Nazi Holocaust and, since as early as 1949, built bridges with Israel both politically and economically. However, it wasn’t until 1998 that The Vatican, and Pope John Paul II, apologised “on behalf of the entire Roman Catholic community” for failing to speak out against The Holocaust. No mention was made, however, of accusations by some Jews that The Pope at the time, Pius XII, had shown pro-German sympathies.

More recently, governments and nations have apologised for events way back in history, for which current office-holders can bear no responsibility. One such example was the regret, expressed by the US administration, over its predecessors’ treatment of Native Americans – or Red Indians as they used to be known. This has been echoed, this year, in ceremonies and speeches throughout the world, marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery.


Over the centuries, empires grew rich on the back of slave labour. The Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans all used slaves to build their cities and monuments. Middle Eastern kingdoms were trading slaves from Africa, long before the British followed suit. It wasn’t until Columbus discovered the West Indies that a huge new trade, utilising Europe’s dominant sea power, sprang up. The Spanish and Portuguese transported millions of African slaves to their new lands in South America, while Britain sent millions more to the Caribbean and North America.

It was for these actions that Tony Blair broadcast a video message to countries around the former British Empire. In it, he said it was “an opportunity for the United Kingdom to express our deep sorrow and regret for our nation’s role in the slave trade and for the unbearable suffering, individually and collectively, it caused.” It was, of course, a British Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce, who was responsible for getting the anti-slavery legislation through parliament in 1807.

There were protests at religious services in London and Bristol, saying the apologies did not go far enough and the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested that financial compensation be paid to descendents of the slaves. The last African summit on the subject mentioned a figure of $777 trillion. Others asked, however, whether we should even be apologising for something, which happened so long ago, as to be ancient history.

Tony Blair, though, is no stranger when it comes to calls for an apology. Despite the opinion of the majority of the British people, he steadfastly refuses to say sorry for his decision to go to war with Iraq on a false premise, and the subsequent loss of nearly 150 servicemen and women. He will only say that he could apologise for the intelligence information on Iraq having weapons of mass destruction having been wrong, but not for actually removing Saddam Hussein from power.

Hardest word

We have now seen a confrontation with Iran, in which 15 British naval and Royal Marine personnel, on duty in Iraq, were captured at gunpoint, having allegedly strayed into Iranian national waters. The British Ministry of Defence insisted the group was in Iraqi waters and it was 13 days before they were finally released after intense diplomatic pressure. Afterwards, British officials went out of their way to deny that the UK had apologised to Iran over the incident, although a senior adviser to Iran’s supreme leader stated that Britain had sent a letter of apology.

In Tony Blair’s book, it seems, saying sorry for personal transgressions is for other people.

Mike Johnson has had a long career in journalism, working for the BBC for nearly 20 years and continiuing to write when he came to the Algarve in the 1970s. He has now retired to the UK from where he will contribute a monthly article on British and world affairs.

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