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

By Andy Mycock - posted Friday, 4 December 2009

The Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the “Forgotten Australians” 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 while 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 (PDF 168KB) 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 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.

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This article was originally published in the independent online magazine as "'Sorry seems to be an easier word': Gordon Brown and the politics of apology."

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About the Author

Dr Andy Mycock is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Huddersfield. His teaching and research interests include citizenship and identity in post-empire states, with particular focus on the impact on government programmes of citizenship and history education in the UK and Russian Federation. His research has explored the "politics of Britishness", focusing in the legacy of empire and the impact of devolution, immigration and multiculturalism. He also interested in contemporary politics across the Commonwealth.

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