ACCORDING to a family notebook, my first word as a child was ‘Mumma’. That’s hardly news, I know, yet I’m surprised it wasn’t ‘sorry’, given how often I’ve said it since. Sorry you rolled your supermarket trolley over my toe, sorry you barged ahead of me in the bus queue, sorry it’s raining and cold (this usually to tourists in July).

To be British, it seems, is to live in a permanent state of apology. Sounding rueful, or taking the blame, is the catch-all response to a multitude of social and professional encounters. Some of these would be far better handled by protesting or complaining, occasionally even swearing. But that’s not how we do things. When I passed my driving test and learned that after a collision you must never admit guilt, I considered putting a bulldog-clip in the glove compartment, in case I ever needed to button my lip. Unexpectedly I did once meet a woman who had taken this no-blame message to heart. After embedding the rear of her car in our bonnet, she claimed it wasn’t her fault for reversing into us because we hadn’t been parked there when she went into the shop. Goodness knows where she came from, but it wasn’t anywhere penitential.

Those raised in a climate of ceaseless contrition understand perfectly the nuances of the word sorry: when it is genuinely meant, or when it is weasely double-speak for a direct accusation, or an unspoken demand for corrective action, such as rolling the trolley off your bunion. As passive-aggressive statements go, few are more effective.

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Yet even I am obliged to concede that it is now so over-used as to be almost meaningless. This is the age of the apology, and in consequence it is a threadbare and ineffectual statement. In trivial situations that doesn’t matter too much, but where justifiable grievances are held, it becomes a serious issue.

When the Metropolitan Police last week made an apology to the son of the murdered private detective Daniel Morgan for failing to find those responsible for his death, he refused to accept it. What he wanted, after more than 30 years, was not an empty platitude. He and his family needed justice, not fobbing off. In his view, Dame Cressida Dick, head of the Met, ought to consider her position after an inquiry outlined a catalogue of the failings, obstructions and institutional corruption that have dogged this investigation. It’s not sympathy he seeks, but accountability.

The same goes for the shameful case of the dozens of postmasters convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting, for which some served time in jail. When the chairman of the Post Office said he was “extremely sorry about the impact on the life of these postmasters and their families that was caused by historical failures” , it was far too late. It was also insulting for such a flabby word to be applied to a breath-taking injustice that led to untold distress, and whose reverberations have destroyed many lives. As with Daniel Morgan’s family, those who have been so badly harmed deserve reparation, not rhetoric.

Yet despite these woeful examples, public expressions of remorse are still important. Many of us were astonished when David Cameron, as prime minister, refused to say sorry on behalf of Britain, for the Amritsar massacre. That shocking event, in 1919, saw British troops open fire on unarmed Indian civilians – men, women and children – some of whom were protesters. With all exits sealed, hundreds were killed and many more wounded. One of the blackest days of the Raj, it laid bare the brutality of colonial oppression. As the victims fell, no pretence could be made that British imperial rule was in any way a joint enterprise, or as much for the benefit of the ruled as for those in power.

To offer repentance for this tragedy would have shown awareness of the wrongs of previous generations and signalled a willingness to accept responsibility for indefensible acts. What would that have cost? To those who fear that once we start saying sorry for past outrages we might never stop, my answer is simple. Why do we need to ration our regrets? Is there a finite number of apologies the state can issue, like a bank cashier with dwindling reserves? Of course not. And who wouldn’t feel repentant about appalling deeds committed in the name of Empire, which was, after all, a synonym for greed? Not to mention others on our own turf, carried out by monarchs, governments, and seemingly invincible institutions.

Doubtless political reasons for not giving an inch on Amritsar and other atrocities include preventing claims for compensation. Yet part of being a modern, ethical state must entail facing up to the sometimes terrible errors of the past. Otherwise our lieges are like families intent on keeping the wardrobe firmly bolted, for fear of skeletons falling out. Yet when truly historic wrongs are owned, no disgrace attaches to the confessor and the present generation, who are personally blameless.

In light of this, you wonder why Holyrood has not expressed regret for the torture and execution of thousands of women and men – an estimated 2500 – who were convicted of witchcraft between the 16th and 18th centuries. Their deaths are a stain on the national conscience. At the very least, they deserve a lasting memorial. We need a reminder that this primitive period, with its almost deranged prejudices and terrors, is far in the past. Or, at least, that we will work to ensure it remains so.

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Cynics will of course argue that, whether it’s a husband confessing he forgot to do the ironing, or the Catholic Church offering condolences to victims of clerical sexual abuse, apologies are a hollow gesture, designed to get the guilty party out of an awkward spot. Certainly, for modern-day abuses or miscarriages of justice, saying sorry is just the first and easiest step. As in ordinary relationships, so in public affairs: the word carries weight only when backed up by actions that show genuine remorse and the intention to do better or to make amends. While an acknowledgement of culpability is essential, it’s what happens next that matters most.

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