GLOSSARY / Try eating humble pie with a stiff upper lip

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The Independent Online
THE Prime Minister has put humble pie on the menu at Downing Street. By calling on his colleagues to curb their arrogance, he hoped to assure us that the Government will note the popular mood and 'will learn from it'. His ministers have shown no great enthusiasm for their meal, but when you find out what goes into humble pie you can't really blame them.

The 'h' on the front of the word, it turns out, is a late arrival, the fruit of a delightfully appropriate pun. Humble pie was not originally a metaphorical dish (like Martin Amis's 'fear soup') but a real one, its chief ingredient being the umbles, or entrails, of a deer. The hunt beaters were generally allowed to dig into the umbles after the venison had been divided between the aristocracy, so to eat humble pie was to rank pretty low in the social order. It wasn't a matter of getting down off your high horse - you didn't own one in the first place.

It is not a dish politicians have ever been fond of. It was John Major who forced down the first mouthful, describing the rout1 at Newbury and in the county council elections as 'a bloody nose' - an excellent illustration of the political principle that when a lie is impossible you should attempt to gain some credit for candour. Mr Major was so pleased with the phrase that he gave himself a pat on the back in the House this week, commending its virtues to John Smith after a heated exchange.

Anyone using the phrase 'a bloody nose' hasn't entirely given up hope of salvaging something from the wreckage. It has a slightly musty air, redolent of the stiff-upper-lippery of the Second World War and it hints at virtues even as it concedes defeat, as if it referred to an honest bout between two fellows in the school gym, a public school spirit of fair contest and no whinging at the outcome.

Other ministers have followed the Prime Minister's example with varying degrees of relish2 . Kenneth Clarke caught the flavour with his confession that the Government was 'in a pretty deep hole' (more stalwart British understatement this - 'we're in a pretty deep hole, chaps', murmurs the submarine commander to his men, over the ominous creaks of the pressure hull). Until his calculated expression of regret at the Scottish conference, Norman Lamont had wisely kept mum; presumably he was sitting it out in a bath somewhere humming Elton John's 'Sorry seems to be the hardest word'.

Even that government favourite, 'we stand by our record' (most characteristically used by football managers with an unbroken season of losses behind them) has been abandoned in the last few days, perhaps through modesty, perhaps because it was becoming apparent to all that 'the record' was in a dangerously decrepit state and liable to fall on anybody reckless enough to go near it.

But despite all the effort, the U-turn - from years of political triumphalism to chastened realism in just a weekend - is really beyond them. The spectacle of the Cabinet trying to wrap their tongues around a diction of patient attentiveness is like watching them try to give an interview in Albanian. The finest moment came when Michael Heseltine gamely attempted to suppress his natural hauteur for the duration of an interview on the Today programme.

It started well, with Mr Heseltine agreeing that these were tough times for the Government, but the teasing of his interviewer soon threw him back on his instincts. 'Governments are unpopular,' the Coriolanus of the Conservative Party declared. 'That is the name of the game; you keep your nerve, you keep your head, you do not bow.' He went on to refer to 'this crescendo of criticism I'm supposed to take seriously', which sounded like a thinly veiled complaint at Mr Major's curbing activities.

What is absent from all these halting experiments in humility is the indispensable component of theologically approved contrition3 , a spirit of genuine repentance. But, in literal terms at least, contrition is the right word. Go far enough back and you find that the word's original meaning is the action of grinding things together so as to pulverise them. It comes to mean anything bruised or crushed, including the conscience of a sinner. Objects grinding against each other; a reduction to fragments; bruised and wretched hearts. Now that does sound like the current


1 From the Latin rupta, broken, from which, the French deroute.

2 Old French reles, from relaisser, to leave behind. Hence taste or aftertaste.

3 From the Latin con, together, and terere, to rub, to grind.