The last few months revealed many of David Cameron's political weaknesses, but today highlighted one of his greatest strengths: he is very good at issuing apologies on behalf of the government. This sounds a flippant, even ironic, ability. But it is the cornerstone of a morally legitimate state.
Just as he did following the Bloody Sunday inquiry, the prime minister issued a frank and full apology for the Hillborough tragedy and its aftermath to a silent, noticeably shocked Commons.
Cameron's establishment credentials lend his pronouncements of regret weight. It does not feel – as it did when Ken Livingstone apologised for slavery, for instance – like someone pursuing an individual crusade. It feels like a reluctant politician speaking on behalf of the British state. For that, it has more resonance.
Cameron combines that establishment poise with basic human empathy. There have been times, especially on the campaign trail, when it is inappropriate and American. But on days like today it is a panacea to the injustices the police and the press committed against the people of Merseyside. The Tory leader even echoed the death of his own son. To lose a child is traumatic enough, he told MPs, without then finding out the death was preventable if emergency services had behaved appropriately.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of these occasions. It is the process by which the state reaffirms its commitment to the people who live in it. The survival of the establishment – in any country, at any time – lies in its ability to recognise its mistakes. That is primarily about reforming the areas where the mistake takes place, but it is also about expunging the venom of the injustice and isolating it from the body politic. It is the treatment of corruption, rather than its negation, which separates legitimate regimes from tyrannical ones. You cannot wipe out corruption, but you can punish it.
That process relies on emotional and political recognition. That is a tone which Cameron has mastered. I suspect, to his credit, that he mastered it because he really means it. Conducting apologies in this way allows the country to come to terms with itself. It is a process which is difficult to explain, much less define, but it is real and necessary for a healthy society.
It is a very emotional moment. The private and embittered struggles of those denied justice are dragged into the daylight of mainstream recognition. They are put on the record, as incontrovertible facts. It is the process of societal vindication.
Several members of parliament appeared to be fighting back tears. There were gasps across the House as he said that 164 statements were significantly amended to remove critical comments about the police, that the police checked the criminal database for the deceased to impugn their memory, that the coroner checked all the deceased – even children – for their blood alcohol level, in an attempt to paint them as drunks.
Andy Burnham, who has campaigned tirelessly on the tragedy, complimented the prime minister in the strongest possible terms. It is, quite literally, the first time I have seen the Merseyside man say a kind word about a Tory. MPs who had been at the stadium were in attendance. Theresa Coffee, who lost a school friend in the tragedy, cried in her seat. Alison McGovern, whose speech on Hillsborough prompted applause in the public gallery last year, also fought back tears.
MPs' voices trembled as they demanded further action against the police who tried to cover up their own actions and the witnesses who changed their statements. The desire for revenge was palpable. You could feel the seething anger in the packed chamber when Cameron revealed the source of the lie that Liverpool fans robbed the dead. It came from a Sheffield news agency reporting conversations with South Yorkshire police and Irvine Patrick, the then MP for Sheffield Hallam.
Like a ripple spreading outwards, Cameron's statement affected first the MPs in the Commons and then the country at large. In a depressing and remorseful process, Cameron executed his part admirably.
- hillsborough disaster