24 February 2010


Saying Sorry

The current vogue for apologies for historic ‘wrongs’ is carried another step forward today with the Prime Minister’s apology for the policy of former governments and local authorities, right up to the 1960s, to ship certain babies and children off to Australia. Hitherto I had believed they had committed some sin like allowing themselves to be born out of wedlock or being so careless as to be orphaned, but ‘Bill’, interviewed on Today this morning, seemed to be saying they were just picked randomly. This can’t be so, can it? Someone would have said something, wouldn’t they?

Anyway, many of the thousands of kids transported in this way ended up as farm labourers in the Auzzie outback or, even worse, suffering the tender care of religious institutions like the Christian Brothers. Christianity, as we all know, is founded on the principle of an all encompassing love, on compassion and care, on forgiveness of those who trespass against you and of turning the other cheek when struck. Oh, were it so. Apart from the ludicrous mumbo-jumbo of the theology (the Trinity, the Creation, miracles, the Olympian gymnastic symbolism of this or that act by the founder, etc. [ref. Life of Brian]) we have the stark truth that throughout its history it has failed to deliver what it says on the tin. The betrayal of the gullible by the hypocrisy of the clergy continues right up to the present day as we see from the worldwide examples of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and by British Army chaplains getting the chaps together for a prayer before they go off to kill people. But that is not my main concern today. It is apologies.

I’m sure much has been written already on the idea that governments, or nations, should apologise to the victims of earlier regime’s offences – for slavery, for the treatment of POWs, for genocides (real, alleged and denied), etc. I can see that it would be some sort of comfort to the victims, and often their descendants, that a historic ‘wrong’ had been recognised by the descendants of the perpetrators. It would be amusing, wouldn’t it, for the average Brit to hear Sarkozy apologising for the Norman invasion, and especially to hear Berlusconi apologising for the Roma invasion, sorry, I meant Roman. An apology might also represent an admission of guilt and, therefore, the basis for a compo lawsuit. There could be money for us in this, so don’t knock it too quickly!

But doesn’t it require a perverse idea of the concept of apologising for the descendant of a victim to demand an apology from the descendant of a perpetrator? This is the stuff of blood feuds in some remote island rather than of modern rationality, isn’t it? Even the Irish, that most grudge-bearing of nations, have come to realise that it’s just plain silly to carry on revenge-killing the other lot when you know full well that they are just going to come back and revenge-kill some of your lot.

Yes, there have been terrible injustices committed by this or that nation (or its leaders) against others. Yes, the perpetrators have often gained economically as a result and their descendants may still enjoy the inherited benefits of coming out on top, but this just points to the need to adopt policies in the present day that will work, in time, to ameliorate or reverse the consequences of the historic offences. Doesn’t it?

So when is an apology appropriate? We all know the answer – it is when YOU have wronged someone else, or harmed them in some way, and they have suffered as a result. If you knock a pint out of some bloke’s hand in the pub it is not only right that you apologise, it also makes good sense.(!) You have caused him a loss directly and it would be right for you to buy him a replacement pint. If an incompetent or negligent surgeon cuts your wrong leg off then you would expect an apology from him and compensation for your loss from the surgeon (or his employer or insurer). On the macro level one might also expect an apology from Tony Blair to the relatives of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed as a result of his and Bush’s crusade against their leader. It is current. It makes sense. But when it is generations later, by people completely disconnected from the events, then it makes no sense.

In relation to the deportation of kids to Australia the chief executive of Barnardo’s childrens homes has taken just this line. He says it’s his job to try to do whatever he can to make amends for Barnardo’s past bit-part in the tragedy. I think he’s right. And so it seems do the media, for they could have headlined his position as ‘Barnardo’s boss refuses to say sorry’ but instead they have put him up in a favourable light as compared to the – today he’s a wimp not a bully – Gordon Brown.


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