People who know my background have sometimes made the mistake of talking about my humble origins, but they’ve rarely done it twice
Independent on Sunday, 8 November 2015
Some people are born humble, it seems. Not as many as there used to be, I like to think, despite last summer’s revelations about Labour cabinet ministers grovelling (“your most humble and obedient servant”) when they signed letters to the Prince of Wales. This rare instance of self-imposed humility – no one had any idea at the time that the correspondence would one day be made public – is a wondrous thing, especially when it turns up in a political party with a commitment to equality.
Others have humility thrust upon them. The latest recipient of this dubious honour is Labour’s candidate in the Oldham West and Royton by-election, Jim McMahon. I don’t know much about McMahon but he has an impressive CV, including the fact that he leads the Labour group at the Local Government Association. He had only just been chosen to fight the late Michael Meacher’s parliamentary seat last week when a left-leaning newspaper produced this priceless sentence: “Despite his wide experience in local government, he comes from humble beginnings.”
What on earth does this mean? That most people with experience in local government have titles? That they’re usually Old Etonians? I think someone has got confused with the Cabinet, where it is now the norm to be posh, if not to have a title or two lurking among the rellies. The Prime Minister, who is the son-in-law of a baronet, recently fortified his OE credentials by inviting his old school chum Boris Johnson to attend cabinet meetings. But I’ve met literally hundreds of councillors and most of them come from perfectly ordinary (though rarely humble) backgrounds.
In this context, “humble beginnings” and its close relative “humble origins” may be little more than a cliché, written in haste, but the phrase is surprisingly resilient. Westminster has its own humble-origins club, the most prominent members at present being the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, and Labour’s candidate for Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. “Humble roots and a City high-flyer” is how the FT summed up the former when he was appointed Culture Secretary last year. I’ve met Javid and I have to say that the paper was wise to attach the adjective to his background, rather than the man himself; I’ve seldom met anyone I warmed to less, shall we say. In this instance, it’s just a lazy way of reminding people that his father (like Khan’s, as it happens) was a bus driver.
Who actually is humble these days? More to the point, who would want to be? The root of the word is humus, the Latin word for earth or soil, and its synonyms include lowly, meek, deferential, self-effacing – I could go on, but you get the picture. A humble person doesn’t have ideas above his or her station, which is one of the reasons it’s so patronising when used about someone from a working-class background. If a writer means “poor” they should say so, but poverty is neither something to be ashamed of nor a reason for low self-esteem.
My family background is poor on both sides, including a lot of ancestors who did dangerous, back-breaking jobs for shockingly low wages. Before the Second World War, the biggest employers on South Tyneside were the Merchant Navy and the coal industry, which is where most of my male relatives worked. Two of my great-grandfathers were donkey-men, working in the furnace-like heat of a ship’s engine room, and one of them lost his life in an attack by a German U-boat. My mother’s father did the same job, narrowly escaping death when defective hatches allowed sea water to swamp the cargo hold during a gale in the North Sea. Why would I be anything other than proud of these men and their wives, who brought up large numbers of children while their husbands were away at sea?
People who know my background have sometimes made the mistake of talking about my humble origins, but they’ve rarely done it twice. A quarter of a century after John Major talked about a “classless society”, the fact that anyone in public life is still being described in these terms is genuinely shocking. So is the way it’s only ever applied to poor people: how many humble CEOs or viscounts have you encountered? I’ve met quite a few middle-class people with no obvious talents and wondered where they would be in the world if their parents hadn’t paid for them to go to the “right” school. But they’re not humble and no one would expect them to be.
The most striking use of the word in recent years was by the press baron Rupert Murdoch, when he appeared before a House of Commons committee at the height of the phone-hacking scandal in 2011. He interrupted proceedings before MPs could start questioning him, declaring that his appearance before the committee was “the most humble day of my life”. Some observers took it as a species of apology but I smelled a rat, wondering why Murdoch was attributing this status to a date in the calendar rather than himself. Humiliating, possibly, but humble? I didn’t believe he had ever felt a moment’s humility and subsequent events, such as his reappointment of Rebekah Brooks, this time as CEO of News UK, have proved me right.
There are moments in public life when a bit of humility would not come amiss. But I’m proposing a ban on the word “humble” in any circumstances where it just means poor or working-class. Labour’s candidate in Oldham West may be the son of a lorry driver but he isn’t Uriah Heep, for god’s sake.