The politics of decency and the art of saying sorry

It seems as though you wait an age for an apology from a politician and then three come along at once.

It is the apology, or his multiple fumbling attempts at such, from Andrew Mitchell that has stolen a march on the Liberal Democrat conference and dominated headlines. Accusations surfaced at the end of last week of his foul mouthed tirade against police officers guarding the entrance to Downing Street for asking him to us a different gate for his bike. And as further reports have corroborated the original story and the full police log published in the Daily Telegraph I struggle to see how the Chief Whip’s half hearted apology cuts any ice, or how he can stay in his job.

If the report is wrong, either through mishearing – I suppose he could have said plod instead of pleb – or deliberate incorrect recording, then Andrew Mitchell needs to defend his position, but to do so looks like requiring a full admission that he did swear at the police officers. It also requires that he calls into question at least the diligence if not the repute of the officers specifically tasked with protecting senior members of the government. Doing either of these things make it incredibly difficult to maintain credibility and respect. And in order to fight this crusade for truth a government minister would have in any previous era resigned his post.

The alternative is that Andrew Mitchell did say the words recorded by the police officer. In this case he is either lying or relying on semantic differences between the accounts. If the aggression, swearing, condescension and disrespect of the original outburst was not enough to prompt his resignation, then lying in an attempt to cover up his misdemeanour surely is. And if it is not, then we should lament the state of our body politic.

Because it would entail the acceptance that it is okay to swear and put down those who seek to protect and assist you. And then consider a limited admission of guilt, while lying about certain more damaging parts, a suitable response.

It seems he rode through the original storm with Nick Clegg among those suggest a line drawn under the affair, but now it seems he may have lied in his initial response it might be that which counts for his downfall. But to say that it is the lying that matters most is an interesting chain of web 2.0 historical revisionism. Those calling for him to go for lying were just two days ago calling for him to go for the words he said.

I wrote for Threads last week about the toxicity of the religious right, especially in America, and how the hypocrisy is what frequently strikes the most damaging chord. I made the point that Boris is lauded for his authenticity when he swears at he rival in a lift. Maybe had Andrew Mitchell thrown his hands up and admitted a moment of madness he bitterly regrets and not denied an ounce of the claims against him he could have rode through the criticism.

But what about decency?

It seems a commodity too precious to be on public display.

In the case of Boris the public overlooks his marital indiscretions and his bumbling inclination to offend the populations of northern English cities and Pacific islands alike with his miscued rhetorical excess. But in doing so, and in taking more offence from words like ‘pleb’ than others I refuse to type, do we surrender our aspirations to a politics defined by respect, decency, care and compassion?

Does the high water mark of authenticity legitimate actions which we might want to take another look at? Is it enough to be true to yourself, is it sufficient to be transparent and not deceptive?

I think not. I think it is fair to demand standards of behaviour, I think it is reasonable to ask that our leaders act in ways which show respect and decency, care and compassion. And I think this means not swearing at police officers.

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2 thoughts on “The politics of decency and the art of saying sorry

  1. I think losing one’s temper and mouthing off with ill considered words can be forgiven. As an often frustrated cyclist with a tendency to react to petty authority I can empathise… But forgiveness is conditional on confession of fault and not wriggling about the detailed wording…AM seems to have blown it politically by his unconvincing denials… and now if he is shown to be lying he has got to go.

    But the real problem is a political culture where the media, the opposition and the police federation are stirring and stoking in order to make political capital over such a small incident rather than debating the big political issues of austerity, poverty, employment, welfare, war etc..

    • I’m pretty sure if he had confessed to it all straight away and apologised he would have managed to hang on. And I know we all lose our temper at times, but I think perhaps we are too swift to see an apology as absolving someone of guilt.

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