Class conscious - Andrew Martin finds barmen don't call him "sir"

Ticket collectors and assistants in posh shops call me "sir", but not pub barmen

There I was, standing in a butcher's shop behind the actor Jonathan Pryce, waiting to be served. "Thank you, sir," the butcher was saying. "Hope you enjoy it, sir . . . Nice to see you again, sir." He uttered about a dozen "sirs" during the transaction, and when it came to my turn, I was resigned to the word becoming completely absent. But it was not. "Leg of lamb, sir?" began the butcher. "Certainly, sir." And so he continued.

I told a friend about this, and he said: "That butcher calls everybody 'sir'. He'd probably call a tramp 'sir'." Important point, that: if somebody calls you "sir", it is not a good idea to hang around to verify the fact that he does indeed give everybody that designation.

It happens very haphazardly these days. You can expect to be called "sir" in traditionalist shops such as John Lewis or in posh, expensive shops; but it has little meaning in that context, and is a straight quid pro quo for the high prices being charged. You are, in effect, paying to be called "sir", and the assistants often say the word in a special dead tone that makes the fact very clear.

I am very often called "sir" by ticket collectors on trains, a strangely happy breed, possibly because of the mobile nature of their job - they walk as they work, putting distance between themselves and any awkward customers - but I don't think I've ever been called "sir" by a barman in a pub. There is a sordid pact between the drinker and the barman: the latter is indulging the weakness of the former, so the serving of drinks is carried on briskly, with eyes slightly averted on both sides. If anything, I sometimes think that the drinker should be calling the barman "sir". Also, women are much less likely to call me "sir" than men, feminism having joined egalitarianism as another reason to shun the word.

Every so often, you'll get a "sir" out of left field: about one in ten of the people who answer my directory inquiries will call me "sir". And I might mention to those living in Crouch End that one of the men in the charity shop a couple of doors along from Budgens is very free with his "sirs". Pay him a visit if you're in need of a tonic.

One of the many things that makes me fantasise about slaying the people who ring me up to sell me things is that they don't call me "sir". I particularly hate the Essex girl who leaves me automatic telephone messages that I cannot terminate by replacing the receiver, and who always begins: "Hi . . . I've been trying to reach you . . ." To the sin of blocking my phone line, this vexatious bird adds that of ingratiating informality with a stranger. On the other hand, there's an Asian salesman who rings me up, possibly from India, because he sounds very distant not only physically but culturally. "Is that Mr Martin?" he begins. Then: "Do you own a mobile phone, sir?" He is presumably trying to sell me something to do with mobile phones. I don't know exactly what, because I always put the phone down on him at an early stage, although I am more tolerant than I would be were he not in the habit of calling me "sir" with almost every sentence. That said, I pre-empted him almost immediately the last time he called by announcing: "I'm afraid that Mr Martin died this morning." As I replaced the receiver, I could hear the man saying: "I am very, very sorry to hear that, sir . . ."

I myself have hardly called anybody "sir" since schooldays, although I seem to remember being advised to greet Prince Edward with "Hello, sir" when I once interviewed him. And I heard myself calling a taxi driver "sir" last month during an argument over a fare. I was attempting to employ the word in the ferociously ironical "you-are-a-bounder-and-a-cad-sir" sense. Needless to say, it came out all wrong.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The other tsunami

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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 70p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits It's easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough. 


Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.