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Thursday, September 20, 2012 

The lost art of the political apology.

It's become an increasingly bizarre thing, the political apology.  Our representatives tend to be rather good at saying sorry for things they weren't responsible for, whether it was the Irish potato famine, the slave trade, Bloody Sunday or Hillsborough, and bloody awful by contrast at doing so for things they actually were.  And in contrast to the idea that modern politicians don't apology willingly, that's only true so far as it applies to those that are currently in power: Tony Blair only found something resembling the word "sorry" when he was in front of the Chilcot inquiry, David Cameron based his almost entire early leadership of the Tories around apologising for the party's past attitudes, even if he never said sorry for anything, while the two Eds wasted no time in making clear how they regretted New Labour's closeness to the banks.  Indeed, Ed Miliband's first conference speech was essentially one long mea culpa.

Nick Clegg's decision to apologise for his party's tuition fees pledge is then at least somewhat novel.  It's therefore a bit of a shame that it was done in such a cack-handed fashion that it's become one of those increasingly rare political events that's crossed over into general discussion, helped immensely by the Poke's inspired auto-tuning of Clegg's lachrymose monologue.

For a start, making an apology your party conference political broadcast is a terrible idea; if you're going to say sorry for something, do it in your actual conference address.  It'll get much the same attention, but it'll be reported alongside the rest of what you had to say.  Second, it tends to help if you really are sorry about what you've done: as anyone who heard John Hemming's tortuous reasoning on Jeremy Vine earlier today will testify, the majority of the party isn't sorry about the issue because it's still conflating two separate issues.  As Linda Jack points out, the promise that individual Liberal Democrat candidates made to the National Union of Students was that they wouldn't vote to increase tuition fees.  The manifesto pledge to abolish them entirely was separate.  If Clegg is saying that it turned out to be unaffordable to abolish fees then that's one thing; if he's also saying keeping them at the same level as prior to the election was also unaffordable, then that's frankly nonsense on stilts.

There are multiple reasons why the broken tuition fees promises has been the stick of choice with which to beat Clegg, regardless of there being so many lying about which could be used.  It wasn't just the pre-election broadcast on keeping promises rather than breaking them or the stunt of signing the actual promise with the NUS in front of the media, it was that it was one of the first, if not the first policy to be thrown on the bonfire come the coalition negotiations.  The party felt it could make it because they thought the Tories were going to win the election, and so opposing any rise would have come naturally.  Regardless of the changes to the law, so that fees are no longer paid up front and only after the graduate is earning a certain amount, it wasn't just a betrayal, it was doing the exact opposite.  It was an act of pure cynicism, and it was a mistake the Tories haven't made.  Some of Cameron's promises are distinctly flaky, such as his pledge to protect the NHS, which is in fact facing a real terms cut in funding, but he hasn't rowed back on keeping pensioners' benefits.  The Tories might not have been up front about the cuts, but they haven't been fundamentally dishonest either.  They certainly have been about other things since they've been in power, but not from before.

The almost three minute long apology then isn't really an apology at all.  It's fair enough that Clegg, apparently genuinely, believes that the change in the law has been for the better, but that doesn't alter the fact that the numbers applying and indeed going to university have fallen, something that can hardly be explained by the current economic climate.  Plenty of people don't want £27,000 of debt hanging over them, especially when this government does nothing other than keep banging on about how terrible debt is.  When you're in a hole as deep as Clegg is, unfairly disliked to a far greater extent than Cameron, you ought to stop digging.  Inviting everyone to come along and throw shit at you while you're still in the hole, as he's done, is just a teensy bit daft.

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