Saturday, March 07, 2009

Should Gordon say sorry?

Probably not if he still wants to win the next election. But there is another option for Labour. Here's today's Journal column.



Chancellor Alistair Darling says the government should show a bit of "humility" and accept "collective responsibility" for the economic crisis. Childrens’ secretary Ed Balls says it underestimated the risks of not having stronger financial regulation of the City.

Is New Labour edging towards something resembling an apology for the economic downturn? Not if Prime Minister Gordon Brown has anything to do with it.

To be fair, he’s had other things on his mind this week – that much-sought-after first meeting with President Barack Obama, and his big speech to the US Congress in which he set out his rescue plan for the global economy.

But the UK national media had only one thing on its mind – whether or not Mr Brown was going to utter the magic word: “Sorry.”

You almost had to feel sorry for the guy. There he is in the Oval Office enjoying his long-awaited moment of glory with Obama and all the BBC’s Nick Robinson wants to ask him about is the “S-word.”

A Sky News analysis of his speech to Congress concentrated less on Mr Brown’s ongoing attempts to save the world from financial meltdown and more on the fact that the number of times he had used the word sorry was zero.

Back home, meanwhile, the Conservatives redoubled their attempts to get the Prime Minister to take the blame for the recession, even in the absence of leader David Cameron.

It launched a new satirical website entitled www.sorryfromgordon.com in which users are invited to draft an apology on the Prime Minister’s behalf.

So should he or shouldn’t he? Well, the answer to that question really depends on whether you are looking at it from the point of view of political morality, or from the point of view of pure political advantage.

From the moral standpoint, the case for a Prime Ministerial apology is fairly clear-cut. This was after all the man who claimed to have abolished boom and bust, who insisted Britain was best-placed to weather the downturn, and above all who invented the system of financial regulation which has so palpably failed.

Since Mr Brown got all of these things wrong, some sort of “I screwed up” –style gesture is probably long overdue.

But whenlooked at from the point of view of whether it would be in Mr Brown’s or the Labour Party’s best interests for him to say sorry, the picture becomes much more confused.

There are good arguments on both sides, and they are arguments that have been playing out at the most senior levels of Mr Brown’s own Cabinet over the course of recent weeks.

Those urging Mr Brown to make some sort of apologetic gesture contend that it would enable the government to achieve “closure” on the issue of who caused the recession, thus enabling the public to focus more on the issue of who has the best remedies for it.

But those urging caution take the view that the whole apology saga is no more than a Tory trap that has been set by the opposition and its cronies in the national press.

Once Mr Cameron has secured an admission of guilt, they argue, he will throw it back in the Prime Minister’s face every day between now and the next General Election.

The public’s own view of the dilemma is not necessarily as straightforward as the Tories would like to think.

On the one hand, the Tory attacks seem to chime with the public’s general view of the Prime Minister as someone who is happy to take the credit when things go well but seeks to avoid any responsibility when they go wrong.

On the other, there is some evidence that the voters see the Tory attacks as petty point-scoring and the “apology” row as a distraction from the main issue of how to tackle the crisis.

A poll published on Thursday found that 60pc of voters would like to see the media and the Tories “give up” on the issue and move on to more pressing matters.

What are the recent historical precedents? Well, Margaret Thatcher would certainly never have dreamed of saying sorry for causing the mass unemployment of the early 1980s, for instance, or the social divisions arising from the miners’ strike that began 25 years ago this week.

For her, all this was mere collateral damage in her overriding mission to rescue the British economy from the ravages of socialism.

What about Tony Blair? He said sorry for the 75p state pension increase in 1999 – which was Mr Brown’s idea anyway – and also for initially having opposed Ken Livingstone’s bid to become Mayor of London.

But those were relatively minor mistakes. He never really apologised for the big one, the Iraq War, saying only that he would “answer to his maker” for the consequences.

Of course the key point about both Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair is that they each won three elections in a row, suggesting that a refusal to apologise for mistakes is not necessarily an electoral liability.

My own view on the matter- and I choose my words carefully here – is that if Mr Brown is intending to fight the next General Election, he would probably be better off sticking to his guns on the apology issue.

But there is another scenario, in which Mr Brown says sorry while simultaneously announcing he will not fight that election, thus achieving closure on the issue without giving Mr Cameron a gigantic hostage to fortune.

Ultimately, it may be the only way for the Labour Party to resolve the excruciating dilemma in which it finds itself.

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6 comments:

Oli said...

As usual, great food for thought.

Snag is that you have put your finger on the issue very elegantly - should politicans do the morally correct thing, or the thing that supports the best interests of their party (or - worse - themselves)?

I guess that with a comment like that I have shown which side of the debate I am on. And I don't normally care much for morals either.

However, when morals take a back seat to party- (or self-) interest you are surely opening a very big door to a very nasty place indeed.


Oli.

skipper said...

Don't think an apology would make any difference to Gordon's standing and would provide an open goal for Cameron. He shouild keep Schtum

skipper said...

Don't think an apology would make any difference to Gordon's standing and would provide an open goal for Cameron. He shouild keep Schtum

skipper said...

Don't think an apology would make any difference to Gordon's standing and would provide an open goal for Cameron. He shouild keep Schtum

Bucket of Tongues said...

Oli - "However, when morals take a back seat to party- (or self-) interest you are surely opening a very big door to a very nasty place indeed."

Hmm. Machiavelli would argue otherwise, and he knew a thing or two about politics.

Oli said...

Damn! Out-argued in one short sentence by someone who probably knows what he is talking about! (Unlike me!)

:Off to google Machiavelli.:


Oli.