Jacinda Ardern’s heartfelt apology spoke volumes about compassion | Afua Hirsch

Nobody demanded that the New Zealand leader say sorry for Grace Millane’s murder. I can’t imagine British leaders showing such humanity

The story of Grace Millane – the backpacker murdered in New Zealand – is unspeakably sad, and its terrible denouement came quickly. What began as concern for a missing person swiftly became a murder investigation, and then the process of identifying a body. Details were scant and our focus turned to the sorrowful words of New Zealand’s prime minister. No one demanded an apology from Jacinda Ardern, but she gave one anyway.

“There is this overwhelming sense of hurt and shame that this has happened in our country,” she said, “a place that prides itself on our hospitality.”

I can’t of course speak for the Millane family, for whom this apology was intended. I can’t imagine it really dents their grief. But we all heard it too, and it spoke volumes: it told of Ardern’s personal capacity for compassion and humility, and it confirmed New Zealand as a place that has a sense of collective pride in a culture of hospitality, and a shared despair at a murder that so grievously undermined that tradition.

It’s hard to imagine Britain managing anything comparable. Not that we don’t have strong instincts of responsibility. I saw that, in a different context, in 2015, when I travelled around the UK speaking to people who wanted to offer their time, resources and front rooms to Syrian and other refugees. And when, last month, a 15-year-old Syrian refugee was savagely bullied in Huddersfield, there again was that sense of communal horror – and an outpouring of sympathy and anger that led to more than £150,000 being raised to help his family.

We have, like all countries with Abrahamic religious traditions – and in fact all other world faiths – a strong moral code to look after strangers. In England, we have had well-codified Anglo-Saxon cultural and legal rules regarding hospitality and responsibility from at least the sixth century. But we seem to have either become used to the idea that newcomers are not necessarily expected to be safe in Britain, or felt no responsibility when appalling events have taken place. Take the awful case of Kamil Ahmad, a vulnerable Kurdish man who was seeking asylum in Bristol. Ahmad was ignored by the police, then murdered by a violent racist neighbour. It took multiple investigations and official reports before any of the organisations concerned offered an apology. Nothing was heard from our political leaders.

When Zdeněk Makar, a 31-year-old Czech man, was beaten to death in east London weeks after the Brexit vote, the Czech prime minister lamented the sight of “Czechs [being] attacked because of their origin and being treated as second-class citizens.” It prompted no soul searching, nor an apology, from ministers.

The truth is, our leaders don’t generally do collective, unsolicited apologies; not for things that happen now, nor for things that happened in the past. New Zealand is the only former colony where the Queen has apologised for atrocities committed by Britain against indigenous people during the frenzy of empire building. Western conservatives bemoan “the age of apology”. And in Britain, when faced with demands for apologies for historic wrongs, they emphasise the importance of maintaining patriotic pride over the need to acknowledge injustices carried out in a “distant” past.

One of the great ironies of the present time is that Brexiters – many of whom are nostalgic for empire and intransigent on the subject of Britain’s need to apologise for anything – now themselves carry an enormous sense of quasi-imperial injustice. Over the last few weeks I have listened to an unprecedented number of references to the danger of Britain becoming a “colony” to the EU; or the horror of the British being subjected to a condition of European “slavery”. These forms of subjection are, of course, top of the list of historic injustices carried out by Britain, on which the same people see no need to reflect.

Collective apologies do not come easily to a society imbued with an ethos of individualism. But if we can overcome that to take so much pride in our past glory – imagined or not – then we can overcome it when we need to apologise too. That there is such a strong instinct right now to revert to our Anglo-Saxon past, where collective responsibility permeated English culture, is a useful source of inspiration.

Cynics will dismiss Ardern’s apology as having little to do with honour, and a lot to do with safeguarding the country’s image and protecting future tourism income. But we should be inspired by her apologies to offer some of our own too. Once we get that far, the only problem will be knowing where to start.

• Afua Hirsch is a Guardian columnist

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Afua Hirsch

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