Tuesday, 23 October 2012


I caught a glimpse of Alex Salmond on TV on Sunday morning while checking the weather forecast on Ceefax. He happened to be talking about something when I switched on. Scottish independence I think - I didn't really listen.

What struck me about him was how, in common with almost all politicians, he is quite prepared to speak with certainty on matters with an uncertain outcome, such as Scottish independence. I have no views on the issue, but as Mr Salmond spoke, the word modest popped into my head, because when propounding his ideas, the man is not modest. I may be wrong doesn’t really come into it.

So many useful English words overlap each other in such a way that I sometimes wonder if we need another word for the area of overlap. One of these is modest.

modest Pronunciation: /ˈmɒdɪst/
unassuming in the estimation of one’s abilities or achievements:he was a very modest man, refusing to take any credit for the enterprise

So we have modest, unassuming, unpretentious and no doubt one or two other words as well.  To me, modesty has a curious relationship with intelligence in the sense that modest people often have a deep seated desire to be right in what they say or do – or at least not wrong.

It applies to both physical and verbal behaviour – driving a car without a need to dominate other road users, putting forward an idea without a burning desire to convince, defeat or browbeat. Surely both these examples represent aspects of intelligence?

Note the modest question mark by the way. Note too the immodest pointing out of the modest question mark. Note...

Yes we are complex, yet there is I think, a certain compatibility between intelligence and modest social behaviour, especially modest intellectual behaviour. Yet the other side of the modesty coin is not necessarily loutish behaviour – physical or verbal.

We may classify people such as Mr Salmond as intelligent, yet something seems to be missing from their supposed intelligence. They lack a certain intellectual modesty where the need to persuade does not overtop the desire to be right. In this sense it is possible to be both intelligent and unintelligent at the same time. 

So intelligence surely has an important weaknesses as a concept. It seems to me, that this lack of intellectual modesty is why political leaders who by any other standards might be called intelligent, are often too immodest to make intelligent decisions. Too often they are simply wrong – even in their political judgements.

I'm not convinced that we account satisfactorily for these failures of judgement.

We tend to accuse politicians of being supremely cynical in their crafty calculations, then when the shit hits the fan we accuse them of stupidity. We can't have it both ways. To some extent they are cynical and to some extent their crafty cynicism is successful, but not as successful as it could be - and sometimes staggeringly, stupidly unsuccessful.

To my mind, the recent kerfuffle over Andrew Mitchell seems to be an example. An emotional outburst it may have been, but maybe it was also a situation where the intellectual weakness of an immodest man accidentally saw the light of day. Of course, he would never have achieved high office through modesty. People don't and it's a problem.

In my view.



James Higham said...

He is not interested in Scotland per se - he is interested in being the boss man in a country of his own.

Roger said...

Faslane to er where? Lymington or Ipswich?

So, modesty - an interesting word, a little bit pejorative, something one should not have too much of if one wants to 'get on'. A modest tyrant? A modest dictator? Not really. A modest doctor? A modest mathematician? Possibly. A tricky one for women, to steer a course between slapper and frump, an intriguing dilemma.

Then we have the four classical temperaments - sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic. I suppose most politicos fall into the sangine or choleric type - certainly Salmond fits choleric.

Demetrius said...

Salmond was an RBS man and lately the scope and nature of its ways of doing business suggest not modesty but other things. Given the shifts and turns in his pursuit of his ambition there is an uncanny similarity between the track record of RBS and his vision of the future.

A K Haart said...

James - yes, presumably he feels he can be a bigger fish than he could ever be at Westminster.

Roger - funny how those old names still fit isn't it?

Demetrius - yes, I'm surprised how he seems to shrug off the RBS issue.

Nigel Sedgwick said...

James has it on Mr Salmond.

On this issue, I suspect that Mr Cameron's motivation is the same.

Best regards

A K Haart said...

Nigel - I agree - I don't think Cameron has the guile of Mr Salmond though.

Woodsy42 said...

You managed to write that without using the word that strikes me as the obvious political opposite of modesty - arrogance - but maybe that matches with 'humility'?

A K Haart said...

Woodsy - yes, arrogant is a good political opposite for modesty.

I wanted bring out the idea that politicians don't so much have something we lack (arrogance) but lack something we have - modesty.