There is a difference between anarchy and chaos. Anarchy implies people being in charge of themselves and willfully going in individual directions; in contrast, chaos is apparently defined by no one being in control of anything and everyone running around in circles. Britain got a large dose of chaos yesterday. On Monday afternoon, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, was expected to announce his resignation due to his role in the continuing expenses scandal. At best, he’s been the deaf, dumb and blind referee to how expense claims have been handled, and thus partially responsible for both frivolous and fraudulent bills being paid by the nation.
Mr. Martin, however, did not follow the predicted script. He started off well enough: he said that he was sorry to the people of the United Kingdom for “letting you down”, and that he would work to regain public trust. Then, he deviated: he added that his future was not a matter for discussion at that time. The effect of the statement was probably not what he intended; Members of Parliament from a variety of parties followed up by urging him to quit. In the end, he only managed to quash the motion by referring to procedure. Hanging up the will of the Commons on the hook of petty statues is unlikely to make anything better; that said, I heard on the news later that the tactic may have bought the Speaker ten days in office.
Ten days seems like a rather pathetic reward for obstinance. However, it may very well have been that the Speaker merely miscalculated; he perhaps believed that saying “sorry” in grave and pathetic tones would be sufficient to allay anger both in the Commons and the wider public. His lack of understanding appears to be part of a wider phenomenon, whereby “sorry” is viewed as a substitute for genuine repentance.
If Britain had a pound for every “sorry” that had been said by an MP since the expenses scandal broke, the country perhaps would have already recouped its losses. We have heard sorry from MPs for making the taxpayer pay for repairs to tennis courts and moats, for fraudulent mortgage claims, and from the party leaders we have heard apologies for the misalignment of expense procedures with the demands of public service. In many instances, these professions of remorse have been accompanied by cheques written out in the full amount.
In the world outside the House of Commons, “sorry” is similarly deployed. The Catholic Church says “mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” in light of child abuse scandals. The bankers say “sorry” for putting the world into what the Economist says is a $3 trillion hole. The wayward husband says “sorry” to his wife after a drunken binge or going astray. Yet this isn’t sufficient: “sorry” in all these instances leaves a bitter taste. Perhaps the problem was most eloquently stated by Rhett Butler in “Gone With the Wind” as he addressed Scarlett in the final scene:
RHETT: My darling, you’re such a child. You believe by saying “sorry” that all the past can be forgotten.
In light of “sorry”, we are supposed to forgive the bankers for their malfeasance, allow the MPs to continue in their posts, attend the Catholic Church on Sundays and deposit, pay and donate without batting an eye. At home, the wife is supposed to forgive the husband, the child that breaks the porcelain vase is supposed to escape being grounded. Everything, indeed, is expected to be magically restored to rights due to the word’s transcendent properties.
There is another view, however, which suggests that “sorry” belongs on the register of abused vocabulary. This opinion also states that it is the Monopoly money of the English language: it only has value for playing games. When it comes to genuine expressions of remorse, the challenge is to be a better person and to do it by deeds not words. However, this requires something that merely saying sorry does not: it requires personal inconvenience and sacrifice.
Let us be clear, the Speaker of the House of Commons is so compromised that any capacity he has to do good in post exists solely within his delusions. In order to show genuine self-reproach, Mr. Martin would have to give up his well appointed offices, his gilded robes, the pomp of ceremony and the prestige of his chair. He would have to stop being the one upon which the Commons’ cameras invariably focus. He would have to plunge into obscurity, perhaps retire more modestly than he originally intended, and indeed, show further humility by not imposing his presence on the public any longer.
There is a model to follow, and perhaps it is the last genuine case of public remorse on record: John Profumo, the Minister of War in the Macmillan Government, had an affair with call-girl Christine Keeler, who in turn also had an ongoing tryst with a KGB agent. In 1963, Profumo lied to the House of Commons and the leadership of the Conservative Party about the relationship; in a more genteel age, that might have been sufficient to get away with it. However, this occurred on the cusp of the modern media era, and the restraints were coming off. Faced with mounting evidence blasted throughout the British press, Profumo confessed, resigned all his posts, and quietly sank into oblivion; he began repenting for what he had done by cleaning toilets for Toynbee Hall, a charity in London’s East End. Good works of this type, done in the quiet and the dark, eventually restored his reputation. By the end of his life, he was awarded the CBE, and was once again welcome at Prime Ministers’ dinners.
What makes Profumo’s repentance so compelling is that his guilt forced him to the very bottom, and yet he worked without any prospect of climbing once more to anywhere near the top. He used what time he had left and what skills he had at his disposal to make amends to the public and did so in the most humble manner possible. When we see the Communities Minister, Hazel Blears, wave a £13,000 cheque in front of the cameras, loudly proclaim she’s paying her expenses back and then jump on a motorcycle and ride off into the sunset, we witness nothing Profumo-esque in her behaviour. Yes, £13,000 is a lot of money to most people, but not to her; after her time in office is done, a few public engagements or some consultancy work will more than claw it back. This is only a blip on her horizons, a storm in a teacup, an annoyance. Thus too is saying sorry for the Speaker, for the wayward husband, and for the bankers: it’s all a ritual purging which allows them to get back to what they were doing before they had to apologise. There is no authentic sacrifice from which society can obtain a moral example. The lesson that is communicated is the credo of Bart Simpson: “I didn’t do it, you didn’t see me do it, you can’t prove anything”. In other words, guilt is only there for those who get caught, and “sorry” exists to get one out of an immediate jam.
Most of humanity’s problems are self-inflicted. We are the authors of our own destruction through our folly and mendacity; morality and ethics are there to act as a brake in order to prevent us from harming ourselves and others. If we continue to accept “sorry” as being enough, then the pressure on the brake may slacken further; already, unethical behaviour has led to vast sums of money being chewed up in economic turmoil, a mounting climate catastrophe, and yes, a society in which our consumption seems to run far ahead of our wisdom. Perhaps we should treat the expenses scandal as a good place to begin to change things: any statement saying “sorry” should be met with a terse challenge to prove it.