Comment Writer Maxim Nägele calls for more politicians to openly apologise to the public.
In a recent prime ministers question, Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy pointed out that no prime minister commenting on Britain’s influence in colonialism has ever apologised but only expressed “sorrow or deep regret” and asked the current PM Rishi Sunak about his opinion.
In line with his predecessors, he refused to apologise for Britain’s harrowing past and stated that instead of looking into the past, one should focus on the inclusivity and tolerance of modern society. Apart from the ignorance that this response carries, claiming that the UK fully embraces its multiculturality while inequalities like the racial wealth gap are continuously rising, Sunak’s attitude towards apologising displays a bigger problem in contemporary politics: politicians hate apologising.
On a surface level, this is explained by the fact that politicians do not want to take responsibility for mistakes that they themselves or their party has made. There is a common belief that admitting to these mistakes will automatically lead to public disapproval and potential losses in the voting booth. I’d argue however that taking responsibility and being honest about past mistakes are some of the most important traits a politician should have.
Historically, there are many instances where apologies have solved difficult conflicts and political tensions. Furthermore, historical crises like the Watergate scandal have shown that leaks of unaddressed information about political mistakes or wrongdoing can cause significantly more reputational damage.
I believe that there is an underlying aspect to this phenomenon as the idea of “saying sorry” is also connected to showing weakness and exposing one’s emotions. While both are unpopular in general politics, gender norms and ideas of masculinity are influencing our attitude towards weakness and emotionality. Traditional norms of masculinity describe men as physically and emotionally strong while claiming that women possess emotional and social intelligence. While these norms are becoming less relevant in modern societies, they are still reproduced in areas like parenting or the job market.
In parenting, the idea that ‘boys don’t cry’ is still commonly expressed to ‘toughen up’ young men and teach them that showing emotions is an expression of weakness. These ideas are then carried on into adulthood and the work environment where toughness and a separation of work and emotion are still seen as important characteristics. This does not only cause emotional distress and instability for many men but it also increases tendencies of aggressive and abusive behaviour, often expressed as toxic masculinity. Accordingly, studies have shown that women are perceived to apologise more than men.
That these societal norms also affect politicians and their willingness to apologise, I argue, is reflected in prominent political apologies in recent times. Former German chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, received a lot of praise from both the media and many politicians after apologising on a controversial COVID policy. This not only showcases her ability to show weakness, but it also proves that taking responsibility does not have to lead to public disapproval.
In 2021, New-Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern issued a formal apology for discriminatory immigration policies towards Pacific communities in the 1970s which she sees herself still responsible as there are consequences in the present. Ardern thereby acknowledges that colonial histories and past discrimination can affect many victims’ centuries after legal equality is achieved, which Sunak does not seem to believe, and apologises in a respectful way that does not appear patronising or pitying.
That both Merkel and Ardern’s political careers have been extremely well received by the public is connected to their ability to show weaknesses and emotional intelligence. They successfully replaced the traditional “masculine” and aggressive way of politics with their own leadership style based on consensus, rationality, and responsibility.
In the current political climate, populism, racism, and a rising distrust in the system have reshaped the requirements for successful political leadership as well as the workings of democracy. In this environment, accountability and responsibility are essential characteristics for political leaders. Politicians like Sunak still need to understand that apologising is neither a sign of weakness nor a strategic risk in public approval. Instead, it displays genuine respect and self-reflection, values that are unfortunately disappearing in modern politics.
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