Wednesday, December 30, 2015

An analysis of the Oliver Letwin "apology"

In his apology Oliver Letwin said as follows:
 "I want to make clear that some parts of a private memo I wrote nearly 30 years ago were both badly worded and wrong.
"I apologise unreservedly for any offence these comments have caused and I wish to make clear that none was intended" 
Let's just analyse this because it is in many ways a classic of its type.
Sentence one:
"Private memo"    Is very bad. The explicit presumption is that because the memo was "private" therefore it mattered less what was in it. So what you say in private is allowably different from what you say in public. This may be true - the whole idea of "on the record" and "off the record" relies on it. But consider whether Mr Letwin was more likely to say what he really believed in private or in public. See what I mean? Conclusion: these were (are?) his true opinions.
"I wrote nearly 30 years ago" - very bad again. The presumption here is that things said three decades ago were in a different time and therefore should not be judged by the standards of today. Bad in two ways. Firstly it denies the idea of core principle. His memo offends against a premise that such opinions are unacceptable anywhere any time. Also there is no statute of limitations on what you say. If you were offensive 30 years ago you are still offensive today. Indeed it matters not whether you said it decades ago or yesterday. When you said it is irrelevant.
"Badly worded and wrong". Very good. He could have just said "badly worded" which would have implied it was a drafting error. He didn't. He says what he wrote was "wrong" - good.
Sentence Two
"apologise unreservedly" is good. Unequivocal and clear.
"...for any offence these comments have caused." Oh dear! The apology breaks down at this point and the key word is "any". This gratuitous word suggests that there might be some doubt as to whether or not offence has been caused. Take out "any" and replace it with "the" and you have something that appears sincere. Letwin is apologising and he is doing this because he HAS caused offence. There is no doubt about this. But the "any" tries to suggest that there may be some doubt in the matter or that those who are offended are in the minority. Again this may be true, but it is cheap to suggest so. The "wrong" in the first sentence is good. The "any" in the second seeks to qualify this. It shouldn't .
"... wish to make clear that none was intended"  here Letwin falls off the rails entirely. Why would anyone, let alone a senior politician, seek to cause offence? Is anyone suggesting that Letwin's objective was to cause offence? Not that I've seen. It was, after all, a "private memo" which is hardly the medium you would choose if your intention was to cause offence ! So Letwin is here apologising (sort of) here for something nobody is accusing him of !
Apologising for mistakes is an honourable thing to do. But this "apology" is an ill-drafted mix of the good, the bad and the dismissive. Is it sincere in any way? I very much doubt it. 


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