There’s a tendency to look to the past and imagine some golden age of perfection. But the world was not perfect when you were young, just as it isn’t now. Life is rightly explained to credulous children in simple and non-threatening terms. I grew up in the 1970s, and I’m glad nobody pointed out to me then that children’s homes were places notorious for child abuse, or police corruption was at its worst. I was just happy to raise money for the orphans, and I knew to ask a policeman if I got lost. More nuanced insights came as I grew older.
Today’s politics makes me question this wisdom. Through my lifetime, I have watched what seemed to be a stately, civilised dance of war veterans and titled eminences descend into a slapstick of consequenceless clownery. Look back at Lord Carrington, Mrs Thatcher’s foreign secretary, who resigned his post when Argentina invaded the Falklands. It wasn’t his fault, but he immediately accepted the blame and did the honourable thing. Today’s politicians may resign eventually, but rarely take any blame unless forced to. It is the practice to carry on as if nothing has happened, and trust that everyone forgets about whatever wrongdoing occurred. Do you doubt me? Do you recall why Priti Patel resigned from Theresa May’s government in 2017? No? Unauthorised secret meetings with the Israeli government ring any bells? Thought not. We’ve forgotten it, and now she’s home secretary.
It all seems so long ago and inconsequential. And that’s the problem. When you do something wrong, mouthing words of apology whilst gleefully continuing is not enough. And if you think I’m pointing the finger here at Trump and Johnson, I say they are the product, not the cause, of this decay. Nor is this a particularly right-wing problem. Tony Blair was an egregious example of a politician who appeared to change his compass mid-career from being a shining example of Christian altruism to a Machiavellian self-promoter. He paid the electoral price, but never accepted the reason why.
The bizarre machinations of Dominic Cummings provide an ongoing demonstration of why this matters. A man who famously refused to apologise for his misbehaviour – or even acknowledge it – is now scorned when he tries to cash in his political insurance policy and tell tales on his former boss. Nobody takes you seriously now, Dominic. You had your chance to say sorry and you blew it.
This is my advice to politicians of every hue. Own your mistakes and faults, and learn from them. If you’ve caused harm, admit it, because that kind of honesty goes a long way. And most of all, when you say sorry for something, you’re not sorry if you keep on doing it. We are watching you and we know.