THE BLOG

Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word

21/02/2013 18:45 GMT | Updated 23/04/2013 10:12 BST

Sometimes sorry seems to be the hardest word - at least, it was for one Prime Minister this week as David Cameron refused to apologise to for the Amritsar Massacre.

The Massacre, also known as the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, is an uncontested fact of this country's empire. On April 13 1919, a protest against British imperial rule was held in Amritsar, north India, a city which Cameron's recent visit to the country included. British forces blocked the exits trapping the unarmed people, including women and children, inside a walled courtyard and opened fire. The British estimated nearly four hundred people were killed - the Indian National Congress put the dead at closer to 1000.

Cameron paid his respects at the site of the Massacre, and said it was a "deeply shameful event in British history" that we must never forget. He was the first serving British PM to visit the site, but Churchill condemned the event at the time, and the Queen has also expressed her regrets, so Cameron's words are hardly a new step. A formal apology would have been, but Cameron refused to, rejecting the value of officially saying sorry for historical events.

But what does Cameron mean by history? Perhaps he meant we can only apologise for incidents where some of those directly affected are still alive; making Amritsar different to Hillsborough and Bloody Sunday, both of which Cameron has officially said sorry for. But in 2007 Tony Blair formally apologised for Britain's involvement in the slave trade - like Amritsar though relatives of those involved are still alive, it is beyond anyone's memory. Formal state apologies are not a personal matter - regardless of what Cameron himself feels, in an official apology he is speaking for Britain, and there is precedent that the state apologises for events even in the more distant past.

And those apologies are important because sometimes saying sorry is all that can be done. And having the humility to do so gives some measure of justice and recognition, however small, to those who were affected and their families. This is child's play - we would give no court to a four-year-old asking what difference it makes if they apologise for hitting a classmate. It's just part of doing the right thing.

There are also political ramifications. Cameron said he wants a "special relationship" with India - but is that really possible if the countries are not on an even footing? The British state formally accepting responsibility for an atrocity of its colonial rule of India would move the countries further towards a relationship of equality rather than one still defined by a history of master and subject.

There was an apology given by a prime minister this week, however. Enda Kenny, Ireland's taoiseach, apologised profusely on Tuesday for the Magdalene Laundries. The Irish state was directly involved in these abusive workhouses for so called "fallen" women, and the last closed only in 1996, so there are living survivors. That does perhaps make an apology more necessary - but it also makes it more costly.

In an emotional 17-minute speech to the Irish parliament, Kenny promised to establish a fund to help the women who spent time in the Laundries, both those sent by the state and those who were not, and also those held in similar institutions. He promised to build a memorial with separate funds.

Kenny also brutally condemned the Ireland that allowed this to happen - and this was an indictment of an Ireland many remember, that many have lived through and have been a part of. For Cameron to formally recognise an ill of Empire would be to admonish a Britain which is long gone; it would require little reflection of ourselves, there is unlikely to be significant financial ramifications.

When the only real cost of an apology is a little pride, is it really acceptable for it to get stuck in the throat?