Plebgate: the blindness of the posh bashers
Thanks to anti-posh prejudice, too many were willing to believe that Tory ex-minister Andew Mitchell called police officers plebs.
On 19 October, the UK government chief whip and Cabinet member Andrew Mitchell, resigned. At the time, it was hardly a surprise.
A month prior, Mitchell had reacted badly to being told to walk out of Downing Street, rather than cycle, by two members of the Diplomatic Protection Unit. (That’s the police to you and me.) It wasn’t just Mitchell’s intemperate response that did for him. It was the language he used, a testament, or so it seemed at the time, to upper-class entitlement. ‘Best you learn your fucking place’, he was said to have barked at the two officers. ‘You don’t run this fucking government’, he continued, before uttering the killer line, ‘you’re fucking plebs’.
Sadly for Mitchell, the officers, frightened by Mitchell’s parting line – ‘you haven’t heard the last of this’ – logged the explosion of poshness in their notebooks (which were quickly passed up the chain of command), presumably to protect themselves against the wrath of the Tory scorned. Not that they needed to, given the fact that a member of the public was there to witness the flare-up. He subsequently emailed his account of what happened, which almost exactly corroborated the police officers’ version, to John Randall, the deputy chief whip and no friend of Mitchell’s. He then eagerly passed it on to the prime minister, David Cameron, who was annoyed.
If Mitchell’s name was turning to mud within parliament, he was faring even worse without. First, the Sun had the story leaked to them by persons unknown, and then, incredibly, a few days after the altercation the Telegraph revealed details from the police log of the incident. For the following four weeks, Mitchell was lambasted for being a rude arrogant posho in the press, and attacked for being a rude arrogant liability by his own party. The police, through its de facto trade union, the Police Federation, also got in on the act, issuing offended press releases and parading around the Tory Party conference in Birmingham wearing ‘PC Pleb’ t-shirts. As well they might: having been at loggerheads with the government over pay and conditions for the best part of two years, this was payback time.
Cameron tried to stick by Mitchell, who always acknowledged he’d sworn at the officers but denied using the word pleb. To no avail; the interminable focus on Mitchell was too much. So, after clinging to Mitchell for weeks, Cameron finally let him go. As I wrote at the time: ‘So, in short, a minister resigns because no one believes he didn’t use a rather dated pejorative. What on earth is going on?’
The revelations of the last few days have made that question a little easier to answer. Thanks to the work of Channel 4’s Dispatches team, it is now alleged that the witness, the person who corroborated the police officers’ account with uncanny accuracy, was not actually a witness. He wasn’t even there. He was in fact an off-duty policeman (who has since been arrested over the incident). Also, CCTV footage of the incident throws a bucketload of doubt upon the police version of the events, especially the contention that passers-by were shocked. There were no passers-by.
In fact, the more details that eke their way out, the more it looks like Mitchell might well have been telling the truth. The police, who are now investigating the matter, claim there is nothing to make them doubt the story of the officers Mitchell allegedly insulted. Yet with it now effectively being a case of one person’s word against another, Mitchell’s own account gains in plausibility. A few of Mitchell’s parliamentary allies have even gone so far as to call him the victim of police stitch-up.
What is slowly emerging, then, from this turbid pile of political excreta is a snapshot of the state in something of, well, a state. That’s because driving this weird palaver over Mitchell’s police persiflage is a set of competing vested interests within the state itself. On the one hand, the Police Federation clearly saw an opportunity to win public support in its own fight with its governmental paymasters. This it did by positioning itself as every bit the victim of Tory poshos’ arrogance as those at the sharp end of welfare cuts. So we have the strange sight of the state’s armed body of men turning against one of those in whose name they act.
But the fracturing and subsequent backstabbing doesn’t stop there. It is eating into the Tory party itself. What became clear from the start of Mitchell’s travails was that many in his own party were quite happy to hang him out to dry, including his deputy chief whip, John Randall. Seen as one of the Cameron clique, Mitchell simply didn’t have the support of other Tories. Hence the endless off-the-record stories in the press about how abrasive Mitchell was, how much of the public-school prefect he was. Mitchell’s problem at the gate became an opportunity for office politics to get nasty.
There’s more to the unfolding Mitchell scandal, however, than the fissiparous nature of the contemporary state. The successful removal of Mitchell didn’t just depend on those actively, albeit allegedly, conspiring against him. It relied on the determination of other, both colleagues and commentators, to believe the story. For this constituency of the credulous, from opportunist opposition politicians to lefitsh journos, Mitchell’s faux pas was perfect. That is, it fitted the tedious anti-Tory narrative of the past few years, in which posh Bullingdon bullies wage war against the poor and the needy. This wasn’t and isn’t true, of course. The trouble with the Tories is not that they are some nineteenth-century caricature, but that they exhibit all the incompetence and lack of purpose of contemporary politics. Today’s Tories are clueless, not callous.
But the prejudice against the Tories, based on the fact that some went to public schools, was too strong. It was just obvious that Mitchell called the officers plebs; he’s posh. So, according to one Guardian commentator, when Mitchell called the two police officers plebs, he revealed the ‘class-based bigotry’ still lurking beneath the new Tory brand. Or as John Prescott wrote in the Mirror, ‘this incident is typical of this government’s out-of-touch and stuck-up attitude towards working people’. In the words of a columnist sympathetic to Mitchell, the allegation ‘confirmed 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’.
And it is that shallow, anti-posh sentiment which sustained the story for so long, and prevented anyone until now from questioning its veracity. Following in the wake of other explosions of inverse-snobbery masquerading as class war, such as the fuss around whether Cameron or chancellor George Osborne had ever eaten a Cornish pasty, Plebgate was too good not to be true. Which, as looks increasingly likely, it was not.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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