On Being Humble
Humility has had a bad rap ever since Uriah Heep, in David Copperfield, boasted about being ‘ever so ‘umble’.
Now, though, the signs are gathering that this quality may be about to make a comeback as a personality trait. In one of those strange outbursts of synchronicity that often manifests itself when I’m thinking about what to write next, I found that my inner musings were being given outward expression in both an article in the Guardian and even on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day (middle-class liberal leftie metropolitan baby-boomer – moi?).
I’ve no doubt that what is prompting these yearnings is the hypnotically awful sight of Boris Johnson (I will not call an enemy of the state just Boris, as if he were a friend or an amusing pet) surging towards the leadership of our country. While Thought for the Day’s message was the usual homily to us all to display a bit more humility (with perhaps a subtext of ‘… and this applies especially to you-know-who’, Suzanne Moore’s piece in the Guardian was clearly headlined ‘Wake up, England! Boris Johnson’s charm is just the arrogance of those born to rule.’
To draw on Dickens again, we have in fact found in Boris Johnson a modern-day Mr Podsnap, the opinionated city type in Our Mutual Friend, described as ‘being particularly well satisfied with most things, and above all other things, himself.’ Mr Podsnap, too, has an effective method of disposing of inconvenient truths: ‘There was a dignified conclusiveness – not to add a grand convenience – in [his] way of getting rid of disagreeables … “I don’t want to know about it; I don’t choose to discuss it; I don’t admit it!” Mr Podsnap had even acquired a peculiar flourish of his right arm in often clearing the world of its most difficult problems, by sweeping them behind him…’
Contrast this behaviour with that of Dame Estelle Morris, a woman of intellect and ability who nonetheless resigned her post as Education Secretary as she felt she was not up to the job, and admitted she had been happier as a junior minister. What refreshing honesty!
But what finally convinced me that humility is the quality that all candidate selection committees should be looking for was finding out more about how citizens’ assemblies work. A participant in the Irish citizens’ assembly that debated, among other things, amendments to the abortion laws, talked on The World Tonight about what a positive experience it had been. The carefully selected panel contained people of all ages, races, gender, abilities, and, last but certainly not least, classes and occupations – small retailers, nurses, lawyers etc.
What was remarkable to her was how constructive the discussions had been. People whose starting positions were wildly different listened attentively and respectively, and made their own points calmly – there were simply no egos on display. The result? On the basis of of a detailed and empathetic understanding of the issues, people were prepared to compromise to arrive at a consensus they could go back to Parliament with.
Meanwhile, we are still stuck with the offensive spectacle of massive Tory party egos clashing, fuelled by years of point-scoring and sneering in the Commons, as these over-inflated monsters thrash about, wantonly trampling the rest of us underfoot in their scramble to the top of the heap.*
* Dung heap, perhaps, since our motif this week seems to be Our Mutual Friend.