Covid has given him a few sleepless nights. But my old friend from Glasgow is still trading and over the worst. This month I’ll pack the car, the insect repellant spray (if you find some that works, do let me know) and enjoy a week or so with the children as his guest on the West Coast. It’s a tonic. My friend is a wonderful optimist, save in one regard. He thinks that Nicola Sturgeon and the nationalists spell ruin for Scottish landowners like him. I have no idea whether he’s right to worry. But, over the years he’s stirred in me an interest in Scottish politics that, sadly, I share with too few Englishmen.
The idea of humility as a virtue in public life really does look like a faded anachronism. – Colin Brazier
So I was fascinated to see the latest example of Nicola Sturgeon’s domination of Holyrood. Not so much that she’d seen off another would-be First Minister, but more the manner of his passing. Jackson Carlaw, the leader of Scotland’s Conservative party, surprised many when he announced his resignation last week. Refreshingly, he suggested that he hadn’t quite been up to the mark. In this, he reminded me of the former Labour frontbencher Estelle Morris. I was working as a Westminster correspondent when she was Education Secretary under Tony Blair. She announced her resignation thus: “If I’m really honest with myself, I have not enjoyed it [her cabinet role as Education Secretary] so much, and I just do not think I’m as good at it as I was at my other job.”
Even then this was pretty counter-cultural stuff. Now, nearly two decades later, the idea of humility as a virtue in public life really does look like a faded anachronism. There’s lots of talk of humility, of course. But what I’m focusing on here – and what Morris exhibited – is the real thing. An honest recognition of limitations. This is not to be confused with its modern variant; the apology. Other former colleagues of mine, who now plough a furrow in media training, teach public figures how to manage a crisis. “Apologise and move on” is often the tactic. That’s very different from saying “I failed because I wasn’t smart enough to succeed”. One is an ephemeral expression of regret designed to mollify critics and dig someone out of a hole. The other is a candid and permanent acknowledgement of shortcomings.
And it’s not just big public roles that eliminate humility. Even the humblest careers now require that candidates can demonstrate a “passionate” commitment to their job. Assertiveness and self-belief are prized. Doubt and diffidence are signs of weakness. The idea that someone can be aspirational, even as they are transparently realistic about their abilities, is for the birds.
If you are humble, nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. – St Teeresa of Calcutta
A big catalyst for this change has been social media, which encourages postings that depict a version of ourselves which brooks no imperfection. Listen to the words of St Teresa of Calcutta. “If you are humble, nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal.” This is not the world of Instagram or Twitter.
A barrister I spoke to recently told me about the young lawyers in his practice. Their sense of unearned entitlement. The utter certainty of their own brilliance. I recognise this from my own workplace. The most junior role in TV belongs to the runner, whose job it is to run errands. Get the on-screen “talent” coffee, or fetch the newspapers. The only runner who really caught my eye in recent years was an effervescent Scouser who came to work in television straight from school. He’s gone on to great things. He was eager to learn and thoroughly un-chippy, the sort of charm that is rooted in an open-natured humility. Of course, it’s possible to affect humility. Think of the Charles Dickens character Uriah “ever-som’umble” Heep. But without it, the snowflake runs riot.
Lest I sound too much like the golf-club bore bemoaning the pride of the coming generation, let me say that the more mature might benefit from a little more humility too. I include myself. I’d like to pretend that when I drive my battered Hyundai past the disappointed-looking security guards at work, I’m entirely comfortable with the trade-off I’ve made between material comfort and a large family. But then, maybe even having lots of kids is boasting of a kind?
Anyhow, I suspect that humility is about to be forced on many of us, young and old, as the unemployment cliff-edge looms closer. More men and women forced to take jobs they feel are beneath them. I think better of a man I know, a former British Army officer, who recently took to driving a supermarket delivery van rather than sit-out coronavirus on benefits.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
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