Saying sorry is a tough call. Get the tone or focus wrong and you could end up apologising for the apology itself; and in apologising for a second time, the content and message of the original apology becomes confused or lost; and so on ad nauseam.
In the act of apology, judgment, clarity and proportion must inform both action and reaction.
So when visiting Pakistan last week, Cameron’s sense of proportion appears to have been overwhelmed by other diplomatic interests; or perhaps his mind had already checked into that infamous Ryanair flight.
Either way, the Prime Minister’s apologising for Britain’s imperial past, suggesting that Britain is responsible for many of the world’s problems – with particular reference to the ongoing Kashmir dispute – seems to have been misjudged.
A whole army of commentators – on both the left and right – condemned Cameron for trivialising the historical nuances of Britain’s role in the Kashmiri conflict; or for shaming Britain on an international platform. A visit which was originally meant to be a diplomatic, relationship building exercise – with important commercial implications – has now turned into a manifold, multifaceted critique of Britain’s approach to foreign policy.
Cameron’s Pakistan mea culpa is by no means a one-off instance of diplomacy dressed as apology. Indeed, it follows a long line of heavily criticised interventions; the apology for Bloody Sunday last June, along with Blair’s famous apologies for the Irish Potato famine and Britain’s role in slavery.
It of course goes without saying that responsibility must be taken for all action. But the response must be justified and relevant – politically and socially, first and foremost. Cameron’s mistake was to apologise at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and for the wrong reasons. Yes: Britain does have a part to play in the Kashmiri conflict; but to take absolute responsibility diminishes that which Pakistan must take itself – particularly when it harbours terrorists and has a suspect human right record.
A well thought through, justified and relevant apology can turn error into opportunity. An apology can bring with it the possibility of reaffirming positioning on key issues, of realigning with the demands of audiences – in Cameron’s case the UK electorate, but more broadly, consumers, investors and stakeholders.
Get it wrong and you could find yourself ruing a missed opportunity, sitting shamefully on a cold hard airport lounge seat, waiting for the first budget flight out of town.