'Sorry seems to be an easier word': Brown and the politics of apology

Kevin Rudd’s apology to the 'Forgotten Australians' highlights the difficulties of dealing with Britain's imperial past while promoting a positive view of 'Britishness'
Andy Mycock
30 November 2009

The Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the 'Forgotten Australians' last week raised some interesting questions concerning the legacy of the British Empire. It highlighted difficulties that Gordon Brown and others face in attempting to project a positive view of Britishness whilst also encouraging a more critical understanding of the imperial past that reflects the divergence of experiences of empire of British citizens. In a week where once again Prince Charles intervened in debates about history teaching in schools, suggesting a greater role in the curriculum for the delivery of a largely triumphal British national narrative, Rudd’s apology also raised pertinent questions as to the extent that the past should be critically revisited in an effort to understand the present.

Rudd pulled no punches, describing the trauma of forced emigration and years of institutional abuse and child labour as ‘an ugly chapter’ in Australia’s history. Many of those affected were a ‘lost generation’, neither wanted by the ‘Mother Country’ nor fully accepted by the ‘New Country’. He acknowledged that Australia’s treatment of the young people it had requested – British ‘White Stock’ – went against the values and attitudes of a progressive democratic country. Therefore contrition was appropriate, as was Rudd’s apology last year to Australia’s indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children of the ‘stolen generation’. Under Rudd Australia has begun in earnest to address and reappraise its national past. Government recognition of the appalling treatment of ‘stolen’ and ‘forgotten’ Australians suggests that, although past sins cannot always be atoned for, the acknowledgment of such actions is part of the on-going process of ‘healing of the nation’.

Rudd’s suggestion that Australia’s national apologies should become ‘a turning point in our nation's story’ should not however be seen in isolation. They are part of an on-going debate in which the role of history and history teaching in schools has been politicised by the Labour and Liberal parties to project competing constructions of Australian citizenship and national identity. These ‘history wars’ have polarised many Australians, with the role of the imperial past providing a key binary in how the nation and its past is constructed. Former Prime Minister, John Howard, sought to project a framework of Australian values, including rather bizarrely ‘mateship’, founded on a national narrative that did not seek to critically reappraise the colonial past. In his rejection of ‘black armband’ history, Howard also sought to avoid the public apologies undertaken by Rudd.

Such tensions are also evident in debates about Britishness and other national identities across the UK. The British ‘history wars’ have raged for over two decades, with the teaching of history in schools providing a convenient vehicle for those seeking to articulate competing perspectives of the past in an attempt to understand the present. Central to these deliberations is that extent to which school history should uncritically ‘teach the nation’ or provide young people with the skills to critically interpret their own view of the past.

How the British imperial past is understood in these debates is enlightening, providing some indication how the present is construed. Some, such as historians Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts, argue that greater emphasis should be given to positive global contribution of empire, particularly its modernising influence on former colonies. They believe that Britain has been over-critical in its review of the imperial past and, as Linda Colley has suggested, ‘the idea that we should spend our time now wallowing in post-imperial guilt is profoundly mis-placed’.

From this perspective, apologies are indicative of a broader decline in national self-belief and standards of behaviour, highlighting the seemingly unlimitless potential for British national history to be debunked and used to induce ill-deserved guilt in those who were not directly responsible for past crimes. Others, such as Paul Gilroy, argue that Britain has not even begun to consider its imperial past in a sustained critical manner. Such deliberations highlight the prevalence of what Gilroy has described as a British ‘post-imperial melancholia’, a reluctance to consider how and in what ways the past continues to shape the present.

It within the context of debates about the extent of British post-imperial reflection that Gordon Brown’s announcement that ‘the time was right’ for a British apology to the lost generations in the New Year should be considered. Critics have been quick to question why the he should feel it necessary to apologise for the sins of past British governments. Melanie Phillips argued that present-day governments should not inherit the sins of the past, ‘a country cannot be held responsible for a policy introduced by a government some eight decades previously’. Rod Liddle suggests it would be ‘an apology of almost perfect pointlessness’, by someone who had nothing to do with the scheme, who did not understand why it was undertaken, and who bore no responsibility for it. Both suggested that if Brown was to give an apology, it should be to the British people for current economic and social conditions.

There are a number of consistent themes in the protestations of those who oppose national apologies. Many highlight concerns over the legal implications of an apology, raising questions about the payment of reparations and the feasibility of deciding who was eligible for an apology. Others question the culpability of some or all ‘indigenous’ Britons in the slave trade and empire as a whole, querying to whom and for what an apology should be given. Apology-resisters argue that Britain was not alone in perpetrating such crimes and that such actions were representative of particular periods of history and should compartmentalised from the contemporary world.

But although such apologies may not be able to redress history or compensate those affected, they are a statement of intent in the drawing of a line between the past, and the present. They are public statements that ratify the re-interpretation of the past, thus raising expectations of citizens for a more inclusive, moral and just future. They underline the progressive nature of a national society, suggesting citizenship and identity are fluid, progressive and aspirational not fixed, regressive and enduringly bigoted. Saying sorry highlights that debates about identity and history can be important emancipatory responses to injustice, encouraging a process, which if managed sensitively, can encourage empathy, grief, responsibility and ultimately some form of reconciliation.

Marina Warner noted in a fine essay published on openDemocracy in 2002 that the ‘politics of apology’ provides insight as to national self-examination and self-disclosure. She suggests that such apologies provide important recognition, to consent to the story told by the wronged victim or victims in question to contribute to the revision of national history and the reshaping of group identities. However she raises a number of important questions that raise doubts as to the motivations and purpose of state apologies. She notes that it is easier for political leaders who are not directly implicated in past acts to apologise. Recent evidence would suggest they are more reluctant to apologise for acts they were directly involved in.

Does an apology herald the beginning of a more sustained period of critical examination of the nation past or does it mean such reflection is ended? What is the purpose of apology without retribution or justice? An apology can restore dignity and spread forgiveness but must it lead to reform? Warner questions the value of false words, highlighting the potential for an arena of post-imperial revisionism whereby governments are competitive in their preparedness to apologies. Without a deeper examination of the causation and context of such acts, she believes that state apologies could simply lead to ‘an inflationary spiral of self-pitying self-justification’.

These important questions raise doubts as to the motivations and sincerity of the Labour government in the UK to tie recent apologies to a more fundamental review of how the imperial past shapes current constructions of British identity and citizenship. Ed Balls suggested a British apology would be ‘symbolically very important’, though he was less clear about why and in what ways. Indeed Labour’s reluctance to review the past and apologise for many of Britain’s imperial sins is instructive. Tony Blair’s half-hearted attempt in 1997 to atone for the Irish famine probably did more harm than good. There has been no suggestion that Blair or Brown felt moved to apologise for the British role in the slaughter of indigenous peoples in Australia, or indeed in North America, Africa, Asia or elsewhere.

Questions persist as to why Brown felt moved to apologise to the lost generations but was far more circumspect about such a move during the bicentennial celebrations of William Wilberforce’s 1807 Slave Trade Act. Though Brown argued slavery was an affront to British national values, and emphasised that Britain led the world in abolishing the slave trade in the name of liberty, no formal apology was forthcoming. In all these cases, there was no attempt to explore the motivations for imperial policy and what were the implications for the British historical narrative that Brown in particular has drawn attention to when articulating and justifying a framework of British values.

What made Brown’s statement most interesting is that he categorically rejected such moves when discussing his view of Britishness on Newsnight in 2005. Brown had just returned from a visit to Tanzania when told Martha Kearney that ‘I think the days of Britain having to apologise for our history are over. I think we should move forward. I think we should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it and we should talk, rightly so, about British values’. Since becoming Prime Minister, Brown has however become something of serial apologiser. Not only has he announced his intention to contradict himself by apologising to the forced child migrants of Australia (but strangely not Canada or elsewhere), he recently apologised for the appalling homophobic persecution of eminent computer scientist Alan Turing.

Brown’s statement of intent this week is interesting in that he might finally be acknowledging that some ‘forgotten Australians’ were also ‘forgotten Britons’. The promise of an apology not only acknowledges this fact, it provides a timely reminder that the boundaries of Britishness are not synonymous with those of UK citizenship.

This noted, the government is guilty of sending mixed messages to these Britons and others who still have a strong attachment to the UK. In a recent speech on immigration, Brown argued that the UK would continue to restrict migrants from outside the European Union. This should be seen as conformation of the re-articulation of UK citizenship to prioritise EU citizens over those from across the Commonwealth - including Australia. Brown has also been consistent in his avoidance of the contribution of British Overseas Territories and the Commonwealth when articulating a national Britishness. It would appear that Brown feels moved to acknowledge British culpability in the forced migration of British children but does not believe that they contribute to a more generous and inclusive sense of Britishness.

The motives for Brown’s decision to apologise must be questioned. His announcement goes against previous statements on the imperial past, thus raising doubts as to its motivation and sincerity. It does not appear to be tied to a broader re-evaluation of the British national narrative. Though Brown has supported a greater role for the teaching of history in schools to promote a common and positive view of Britishness, there is little to suggest that he seeks to instigate a more critical debate that explores the imperial past and how it continues to shape British citizenship and identity. However, the apology to the ‘lost Britons’ could prove be the first tentative step of a longer process of reconciliation which involves an intensive and potentially painful re-evaluation of Britain’s past that will led to a more sensitive, plural and inclusive understanding of British and other national identities.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData