Sunday, 21 February 2010

Nostra Culpa

The Guardian reports that: 'The government will next week issue a formal apology to the tens of thousands of British children who were sent to Australia and other commonwealth countries with the promise of a better life but who often ended up neglected, abused or forgotten.'

This is the latest in a long line of governments apologising for something they did not do and follows the Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd doing the same.

Apologising on behalf of someone else is an odd thing to do. The current government is not responsible for the actions of its predecessors in the same way that people alive today are not responsible for slavery, the persecution of Catholics by Elizabeth 1, the treatment of Alan Turing or denying women the vote.

An apology implies responsibility at some level and you can't be responsible for something that you had no control over. Being born a particular nationality or into a certain social group is not something anyone has any say in. Many institutions that have substantial history have at some time been engaged in activities that current members would not now endorse.

Descendants of mistreated people or groups often demand apologies or even financial reparation. The people who perpetrated the acts cannot be punished, so the living must make amends.

Groups who continue to suffer disadvantage have a case for demanding better treatment in the present but only in the same way that any disadvantaged group does. Holding living individuals or institutions responsible looks too much like wanting penitence from someone and whoever is at hand will do. There is an element of the 'sins of the fathers' at work.

The past cannot and should not be written off. But recognising that actions of our ancestors or predecessors must not be repeated and taking steps to ensure that they are not is very different from apologising or paying for them.

Last month Brown apologised for thalidomide. Campaigners won £28 million compensation from the UK manufacturers and the government has announced a £20 million support package for the survivors. But what did the apology achieve?

"The apology is just as important as the financial settlement," said Guy Tweedy, one of the thalidomiders leading the campaign for a better deal.

"It is important not only to thalidomiders but also to parents of thalidomiders and the parents who lost thalidomiders. It should have happened 45 years ago. No minister has ever really stepped up to the plate and said the right thing."

Would the apology have been as acceptable without the practical action? There seems to be confusion between apologising and acknowledging that wrong was done in the past that has consequences in the present.

Dealing with the consequences of someone else's actions is not the same as making amends. It is an independent act inspired by your own moral sense or by current legislation. It does not imply guilt either directly or by association and therefore the need to apologise.

Rather than scapegoat entire institutions, it would be more productive to educate people so they are aware of what happened in the past and are better able to avoid it happening again. And to legislate to make sure it doesn't.

Of course, it's much easier to apologise for something you didn't do (especially for public figures and institutions). The sackcloth and ashes act also demonstrates your sensitivity and moral superiority. There may sometimes be political capital in parading your penitence especially if the aggrieved are voters and belong to a large pressure group. In addition, at present it would be hard not to apologise without appearing callous, arrogant or unjust while the apology is misunderstood and misused.

My great grand-father was a bigamist and did time for it. Should I apologise to anyone who suffered from his crime? Should I try to find out whether there are any living descendants of the child he had with his first (legitimate) wife and apologise? I certainly benefited from it; if he hadn't done it, I wouldn't exist.


  1. I think you're being a bit harsh on the subject of state apologies. What they do is serve as official recognition that something was wrong, even if there's no real way of righting the consequences of the past. The individual members of the government today may all be different from those involved in sending children to Australia under the false promise of a better life, but UK state is the same body, and it is perfectly reasonable for it to issue an apology.

  2. I take your point, but I think you have to accept these are often emotional issues, and require an emotional response - an apology - as well as rational action.
    Also, where would you draw the line for a government no longer to be responsible? When there are no more MPs serving from that particular government? The comment above is correct in pointing out that it's the state apologising, not the government, and that makes the rationale clearer.