The Political Language of Apology (or Not)

Prime Minister Cameron Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent visit to India gave us another notable example of the “political apology.”

In Punjab in 1919 public discontent with British colonial rule was growing. In Amritsar ruthless but stupid Brig-General Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to fire at point-blank range on a large crowd of Indian protesters. Hundreds died. This massacre was denounced in Parliament in London by Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War and no slouch as a public speaker:

…An episode which appears to me to be without modern precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire. It is an event of an entirely different order from any of those tragic occurrences which take place when troops are brought into collision with the civil population. It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event…

…We ought to remember the words of Macaulay: “and then was seen what we believed to be the most frightful of all spectacles, the strength of civilisation without its mercy”. Our reign in India or anywhere else has never stood on the basis of physical force alone, and it would be fatal to the British Empire if we were to try to base ourselves only upon it…”

Prescient words. The massacre provoked outrage across India that helped set in motion the events leading to India’s independence.

94 years after the massacre, British Prime Minister David Cameron decided to visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar during a high-profile visit to India. He had to work out what to say. Not a straightforward task, as his words had to reach multiple audiences: British public opinion, the UK’s sizeable Sikh community, Indian public opinion and, perhaps most importantly, relatives of the victims of the massacre.

At the Golden Temple Mr. Cameron went out of his way to pay respectful gestures including walking barefoot and greeting pilgrims. In the book of condolence he wrote the following:

This was a deeply shameful event in British history – one that Winston Churchill rightly described at the time as “monstrous”. We must never forget what happened here. And in remembering we must ensure that the United Kingdom stands up for the right to peaceful protest around the world.

From a speechwriter’s point of view, that last sentence strikes a subtly jarring note: a trite but superfluous political sound-bite added to what otherwise was a strong, clear message.

Explaining his remarks before he left Amritsar, the Prime Minister said this:

We are dealing with something here that happened a good 40 years before I was even born, and which Winston Churchill described as ‘monstrous’ at the time and the British government rightly condemned at the time. So I don’t think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologise for.

That is why the words I used are right: to pay respect to those who lost their lives, to remember what happened, to learn the lessons, to reflect on the fact that those who were responsible were rightly criticised at the time, to learn from the bad and to cherish the good.

He had a point. Any British leader and probably any leader anywhere wants to avoid being dragged into the apology business. Where does it end? Should people living now be expected to apologise for events that happened long before they were born, when attitudes and values were completely different?

Even if the leader is minded to apologise for his country’s earlier misdeeds, there are many ways to spin the words to give a subtle (or not so subtle) sub-text. This piece by Tom Jacobs is a magnificent gallop through different options.

Plus apology is a two-way street. Those to whom the apology is directed define its impact. The most heartfelt words of apology can fall upon stony or derisive rejection. Words that for some people fall short of apology may be seen by others as more than gracious.

David Cameron understood all this. He also understood that even if his words went down impressively well on the day with most people in Amritsar itself, the modern global media would find and quote at least one person insisting that the Prime Minister had just not gone far enough.

This maybe explains why his visit did not include a private session with relatives or descendants of the victims of the Amritsar massacre to offer personal words of condolence. Even if this gesture would have been hugely appreciated by most of them, the media would have pounced on dissatisfaction or resentment expressed by any of them and frothed that up into the major story of the visit.

As it was many British and international media headlines duly led on implicitly critical/negative angles of the Amritsar visit:

  • “David Cameron defends lack of apology for British massacre at Amritsar” (Guardian)
  • “No Apology, Just Regret!” (Indiatimes)
  • “Does Cameron’s decision not to apologize for 1919 massacre really matter?” (Christian Science Monitor)
  • “My pride in the British Empire, says David Cameron in India as he stops short of an apology for 1919 massacre at Amritsar” (Daily Mail)

Much of the coverage nonetheless conceded that many Indians including some relatives of the victims had been pleased with David Cameron’s approach and strong words. All in all, a pretty good result in problematic circumstances.

Conclusion? A speechwriter mulling over options for words of regret or apology needs a wily pen. The words chosen must complement the visual and symbolic context in which they are to be spoken, to give the best chance of conveying a message of substantive sincerity. It’s not enough to be decent and right. You have to be convincing.

A nice challenge for whichever senior British person represents the nation in India in 2019 at the centenary commemoration of the Amritsar killings.

Charles Crawford Charles Crawford served as FCO speechwriter in the 1980s and then as British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw before leaving the UK Foreign Service in 2007 to start a new career as speechwriter, communications consultant and mediator. He can be reached via his website or @CharlesCrawford

Print Friendly

Comments are closed.