Writing

Priti Patel’s ‘I’m sorry you were upset’ is not a proper apology

The government’s response to breaching ministerial code is not good enough

Written by Shaparak Khorsandi in The Independent 10 months ago (Friday, November 20th, 2020)

So after a report concluding that she broke the ministerial code by bullying civil servants, Priti Patel has not been sacked from her job as home secretary or given so much as a wedgie by her boss, Boris Johnson, who mumbled something like “just go and say sorry or something and we’ll say no more about it”, before bumping into a door.

The complaint against her was made by various civil servants and the report on the matter concluded that Patel did indeed break the ministerial code which, though not legally binding, insists on ministers not behaving like utter rogues towards civil servants they work with.

Who would have imagined that this woman, who exudes such warmth and compassion toward her fellow man, would ever have ended up in such a pickle in the first place? The prime minister, a man with all the wisdom of a hedgehog crossing the road, has stood by her and said as far as he was concerned, the “matter is closed”, prompting his ministerial code adviser Alex Allan, who seems to be cursed with the fading concept of “integrity”, to resign.

Through sheer grit and determination, Patel and Priti have managed to take the “anti” out of “anti-bullying week”. No mean feat in these woke times when every single person, it seems, expects to be treated with dignity and respect.

Boris Johnson is nothing if not consistent at least. He has demonstrated yet again how adept he is at shirking responsibility, allowing those who work for him to do the same and managing his cabinet as effectively as a man eating soup with a fork.

To be fair to Priti, the report did say that the bullying may have been unintentional.

It’s made me wonder if we have all been rather harsh towards bullies up until now? If the people they are shouting and swearing at aren’t able to stand up to them and explain how they are feeling, then how are they meant to know they have instilled that fear? If somebody cries after you have insulted or belittled them, how do you know they haven’t just got something in their eye? It must be very confusing for the likes of Patel. If a colleague resigns because they simply can’t take any more from you, then they rob you of the chance to explain that things would have worked out if they had just accepted that they are useless because you say so.

Patel and the government she serves have set themselves apart from workplaces across the land that must adhere to codes of conduct and take proper action when they are breached. Once again they have made it abundantly clear to us voters that they will continue telling us what to do, yet will act with impunity themselves.

In the good old days, bullying was more obvious. You were either getting your head held down in a flushing toilet, or you weren’t. These days, we have come to understand it can be more subtle, and crucially, adults do it too. Smart, nicely dressed adults. Adults who are, by some, considered thoroughly good eggs but when it comes to you they are rotten.

The hardest thing to do when you’re being bullied is to call it out. It can feel like you are being weak, you tell yourself you can handle it but up against someone who has power and position above you, you know they can make life even harder if you are not cowed. If you consider yourself a confident, able person, then there is even a disorientating shame to find yourself in a situation where another adult is bullying you. A bully’s behaviour creeps up on you, at first you make excuses. You tell yourself you’re being oversensitive and then after a while you realise “no, they are a shockingly rude numpty who has absolutely crossed the line and they need to back off”. Not an easy thing in the workplace, especially if they are your superior.

Priti Patel put her behaviour down to being “direct” in her Lack Awareness Award-worthy “Sorry, not sorry” statement today. “I am sorry that my behaviour in the past has upset people.” Years ago, someone I knew, after a few drinks, began to behave like a proper schoolyard bully towards me. I put my drink down and left. His apology (weeks later) was much like Patel’s “I’m sorry you were upset”, as though the fact that I don’t enjoy being belittled in front of others to serve someone’s fragile ego was just because I am a sensitive soul. “I’m sorry you were upset” is the non-apology of the genteel thug who knows that keeping up a semblance of the appearance of politeness and contrition is necessary to separate them from the more traditional, punch-you-in-the-face thug.

Filed Under: Column, The Independent, Writing