Never complain; never explain; never apologize. The words are variously attributed to Neville Chamberlain, John Wayne and Benjamin Disraeli. But someone who should perhaps have taken them to heart is our esteemed Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.
We have learnt that Gordon Brown takes it on himself to hand-write a personal letter to the relatives bereaved by a soldier's death in Afghanistan. One mother, who has lost her son, complained loudly (to a tabloid newspaper) that the letter sent by GB was illegible, and spelt both her and her son's name wrong. Mrs Janes was addressed as Mrs James and her son, Jamie, as James, though GB did score through the terminal 'es' and replace it with 'ie'. Later Brown telephoned to apologize, blaming it on his bad writing (it is very bad and he writes in a thick black felt-tip). There are some spelling errors that can be put down to his bad writing - he tends to omit the letter 'e' near the ends of words as they finish in a terminal squiggle, but the excuse seems lame since he called the family 'James' when announcing the death of the son at Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons, and he clearly realized that 'James' should be 'Jamie', but rather than trying to correct it, he should have wasted that piece of paper and started again. It does give the impression that this was a hurried scribble.
Now, he did not need to write a personal letter and no doubt he was in a hurry. A prime minister's job is a hard one and he can't behave like Campbell Bannerman did in 1906 and take a nap in the afternoon. But apologize? PG Wodehouse once wrote, "It is a good rule in life never to apologize. The right sort of people does not want apologies, and the wrong sort of people takes a mean advantage of them.”
This is certainly what happened to GB. The mother, no doubt at the behest of the tabloid newspaper, taped the phone call. She did not accept the apology and easily pointed out the inherent lie in his excuse. She further turned the complaint into what was probably bugging her in the first place. Her son didn't need to die. Had a helicopter been available he might have been evacuated in time, but there weren't enough helicopters.
The transcript of the telephone call was plastered over the tabloids this morning. Although the public reaction is slightly in Gordon Brown's favor, he would have been wise to have kept his head down. People understand that he went the extra mile in writing the letter, but he has appeared maladroit in the way he has handled himself, and who wants a clumsy Prime Minister.
So what are rules about apologizing?
First: don't apologize for something you are not responsible for. It has been unseemly and nauseating to see politicians apologizing for things that happened 200 years ago when standards were different. Even when standards are the same. Young Germans should not apologize for Hitler - he was Austrian anyway. What's done is done. Nothing will change the past. Get over it; that's the way things are. Anyone ever thought of criticizing the Italians because Nero burnt Christians to light his arenas?
Second: if you are responsible for something, apologize in person, face to face to the offended party; but don't make a public spectacle of it. Do it quickly. Don't have it dragged out of you.
Third: don't make excuses. If you are truly sorry it is because it is your fault - not the fault of the weather, your work being too onerous or some other fool putting you off.
Fourth: do better in future.