Rah, rah, rah, we’re going to smash the oiks, as the Oxbridge team in the Young Ones University Challenge episode chanted ahead of their clash with Scumbag College.
Is it really big news that Andrew Mitchell, the newly appointed government Chief Whip, was rude and sweary to a police officer and even worse, may have called him an “effing pleb” when he stopped him from cycling out of Downing Street using the vehicle gate? If you are in the large part of the population who think that the government is somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan but without his charm and compassion, has it really made any difference? Were you thinking before, well, they’re mostly awful but that Mitchell chap seems OK? If you’re in the smaller camp who think that’s a bit of an exaggeration about a government which seems to bumble along from calamity to ineptitude without quite doing anything very much, will you be thinking that this does anything other than confirm that view?
We will never probably know exactly what he said – the trustworthiness of politicians and police officers in their formal recollections of events this year is a 1-1 draw between Jeremy Hunt and the South Yorkshire Constabulary. Pleb is an odd word, only used, as far as I can remember in recent times by Gordon Ramsay. He apparently said it of Terence Conran’s restaurants and I think also of Chris Moyles when he didn’t like one of his dishes (in a clip which Moyles then used repeatedly in his now thankfully ended Radio 1 show). I don’t remember any uproar over the then clearly intended sin of elitism, but perhaps the chattering classes think good food is something it is OK to be elitist about and that pasty-faced and bellied northerners like Moyles deserve it.
I don’t think it particularly implausible that he might have said “plod” rather than “pleb” in frustration at what sounds like a bit of jobsworthery from the officer subjected to the hurtful tirade. A jobsworth in a uniform? Surely never? I’m reminded of my sadly departed father in law who worked in security for G4S during his short retirement. Apart from manning the security checks at his beloved cruise terminal he also enjoyed getting to run the scanners and badge checks at things like Party Conferences. He wasn’t impressed one year by the exasperation shown by David Cameron at being put through the full security process to get in to deliver his speech. Now, obviously, the way you treat people, perhaps particularly those doing an important but not high status job to protect your safety, is important. Being rude or snobby is just not very good. Then again, it wouldn’t involve unacceptable levels of discretion to conclude that the leader of the Opposition is almost certainly not going to be carrying contraband or a bomb into a speech to his supporters. Getting a bit narky about it might be a natural response, maybe even a glimpse of normality beneath the sheen of today’s polished public personas. Similarly, even though Mitchell was hardly the most well-known Cabinet Minister, what harm was really likely to be caused by letting him cycle out of the vehicular access gate?
Having had a nice lunch (Mrs B and I had our wedding breakfast made from Cinnamon Club recipes) doesn’t mean that he might not have had a tough day. Even if having a bad day doesn’t excuse bad behaviour, it can explain it. Given that Mitchell’s job is to herd a particularly unruly bunch of cats, almost none of whom think much of the government they are meant to be supporting, I’d imagine that most days are bad ones. Oh for the comforts of 2 years quietly attempting to make a rising international aid budget not go to the Indian Space Programme or too directly into the pockets of murderous kleptocrats.
Of course, resorting to the “do you know who I am?” line of indignant fury is never likely to achieve much. If the ‘victim’ didn’t know, then it won’t make any difference because you clearly aren’t anyone as important as you thought you were. If they did, then it clearly didn’t make any difference to how they were going to treat you. Either way, it fails. It doesn’t say very much about Tories, unless you accept that it says the same about Labour politicians after Harriet Harman used the same line when stopped for speeding. It does say something about politicians and power but the opposite of the line criticised. Rather than marking out a distinction between a powerful Senatorial class and the Plebs, as in Roman times, the reaction shows that there really isn’t that distinction between the rulers and the ruled.
Alternatively, it might just be that Mitchell was merely getting rather too quickly into his stride as a London cyclist. I like cycling. Boris bikes in London are very handy if it is dry. But, the default mode for many regular London cycle commuters is supreme arrogance and a belief that the rules of the road are optional at their discretion and judgment as superior road users. Earlier in the year I managed to get shouted at by one for having the temerity to drive in my lane rather than lurch up onto the pavement as he tried to ride down the wrong side of the road to pass queuing traffic. Once the London biker’s red mist descends, Mitchell’s pleb rant might just be the natural conclusion.