In the eyes of the state, we’re all plebs
The class worriers attacking Andrew Mitchell for using the p-word never raise a peep about other government assaults on us plebeians.
Here we go again. A UK Conservative Party minister in the Lib-Con coalition government has said something deemed frightfully rude by hyper class-conscious observers.
The incident itself is too trivial for words - just not, sadly, for the words of the political and media classes, which have spent the past few days endlessly banging on about it.
Apparently, on Wednesday evening last week, chief whip Andrew Mitchell was attempting to cycle out of Downing Street. The armed police officers who now guard this once public street were clearly not impressed and refused to let him through the Downing Street gate unless he got off his bike. Mighty pedaler that he is, Mitchell was not going to disembark the saddle for just anyone, so he pulled rank: ‘Open this gate, I’m the chief whip. I’m telling you - I’m the chief whip and I’m coming through these gates.’ All to no avail. After being helped down from his antique velocipede, complete with an incredibly twee wicker basket, the diminutive Mitchell supposedly let rip. ‘You best learn your fucking place’, he squeaked. ‘You don’t run this fucking government. You’re fucking plebs.’
And it’s that last word which has landed Mitchell in all sorts of trouble. This is because, for the current army of class worriers, Mitchell’s alleged use of ‘plebs’ supposedly reveals what the government really thinks of ordinary people. It thinks we’re plebeian, a mass of lesser beings answerable to the whims of a patrician political class. As a columnist sympathetic to Mitchell put it, the allegation ‘confirm[s] every ghastly suspicion that the Tory Party is led by people who really do believe themselves born to rule and therefore regard the police as no more than proletarian shock-troops at their beck and call’.
Which just about captures the main thrust of Gategate. You see, for those who really do think that the clueless coalition are motivated by little more than some weird class loathing, Mitchell’s comment does indeed fit their pre-existing narrative all too perfectly. That is, our current political and social situation can be explained by reference to a semi-secret class war being waged from Tory HQ by assorted posh boys who may or may not have been members of the aristoprattish Bullingdon Club. According to this logic, that is why the Tories propose public-sector spending cuts or reform of the NHS: because they’re really posh and they hate the poor.
Labour’s shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, clearly believes this to be the case. ‘Some of these Tories are foul-mouthed spoilt little brats and now one is caught’, he said. Elsewhere, a Guardian columnist was convinced that Mitchell’s outburst shows the ‘class-based bigotry’ still lurking beneath the Tory brand: ‘Years after John Major’s “classless society” and Thatcher’s declaration that “there are only individuals”, the role of class has been airbrushed out of our interactions so successfully that a privileged man can sneer at two working people and avoid any real analysis of his actions.’ Which, given the volume of ‘real analysis of his actions’ that has appeared across the media, is a load of manure.
Take the Mirror, for example, which wheeled out its very big gun, former Labour deputy prime minister John Prescott, to take potshots at the ‘Bullingdon bullies’: ‘[W]hen this arrogant upper-class twit who made millions as a merchant banker sneered at those officers, he was insulting the rest of us [ordinary people] as well. But this incident is typical of this government’s out-of-touch and stuck-up attitude towards working people. Mitchell treated officers who work in Downing Street as if they were his servants in Downton Abbey. He literally believes he’s above the law.’ And Prescott literally believes every aspect of Tory policy can be reduced to the backgrounds of its advocates.
We saw similar arguments being made earlier this year, too – in relation to prime minister David Cameron’s and chancellor George Osborne’s unfamiliarity with the Cornish pasty. Apparently, the fact that neither could remember when they last ate this tin-miners’ food-stuff now sold 24/7 in garages across the land (although Cameron pretended to), signified their distance from, and animosity towards, ordinary people. As Rod Liddle put it in the Sun: ‘[The pasty controversy] is what happens when you have a government comprised almost entirely of public school-educated millionaires. It is not simply that they do not care about the less well-off – they are actually actively hostile towards them.’
The problem with this seeming critique of the class-based underpinnings of Lib-Con coalition policy is not just its superficiality or wrongheadedness. It’s that it is also a pretty retrograde way of understanding politics in general. It suggests, in short, that someone’s background immediately determines their political outlook. And in doing so, it as if all the years of thinking, acting and reflecting that mediate between the circumstances of one’s birth and one’s later views count for nothing. His parents were rich, he went to a public school, therefore whatever he says or does as an adult directly reflects that background. As both toffs and non-toffs know, this is pure poppycock.
Can the Tory leadership’s ambiguous attitude to growth, its flirtation with green policymaking and its attempt to outsource responsibility for key state responsibilities from policing to healthcare really be explained by Cameron’s or Osborne’s Etonian backgrounds? Likewise how are we to understand the Second Viscount Stansgate aka Tony Benn’s life-long commitment to the Labour Party? Posh entryism? Of course not. An individual is not completely determined by his background; he consistently transcends it. There are plenty of reasons to have a go at the coalition’s senior partners, the Conservative Party, but the relative poshness of some of its members is not one of them.
Yet, for all the classist posturing over Mitchell’s reported outburst, there is a depressing irony to the outrage, too. That is, all too often, the state’s denigration of the capacity of ordinary people to live their lives as they see fit is not only ignored but encouraged by those currently up in arms about the use of the word ‘plebs’. Think of the widespread liberal support for the Lib-Con’s plans to intervene in the lives of 120,000 ‘chaotic families’, an extension of New Labour’s so-called family-intervention projects. Or think of the Leveson Inquiry, and the state-backed efforts to deal with the vulgar tastes of Britain’s 20million-or-so ‘tabloid readers’. It seems there some ways of talking about and dismissing ordinary people that are more acceptable than others. Mitchell’s problem was not what he said; it was how he said it.
And it’s not just the language. In its actions, the government is obsessed with dictating to its citizenry how we should live, from what we eat and what we drink to what we can say to each other without causing offence. And yet a plan, such as minimum pricing for alcohol – a measure which really will affect the lives of the least well-off - is not met with howls of anti-posh anger. No, it’s greeted with support, or, worse still, claims that it is not going far enough. Again and again, policies which indicate the government’s thoroughgoing dismissal of our ability to live our lives without guidance and intervention from our betters pass off uncriticised.
It seems that while the word ‘plebs’ is the latest prompt for class-war fantasists to bang their 1980s drums, the reality of the political class’s all-too-patrician actions continues to be ignored. And in that sense, we really are ruled over by people who think they know what is best for us. People, in short, who think we are plebs.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.