The Tories versus the police
The remarkable thing about Plebgate is that the party of law and order is fighting the police.
This week, as the latest chapter in ‘Plebgate’ unfolded, there was a moment more significant than it perhaps looked. Andrew Mitchell, the former government chief whip who was forced to resign last October following a bit of sweary banter with the Downing Street police guards, held a press conference. He was flanked not just by his wife and lawyer, but by the Tory MP and one-time leadership candidate David Davis. And the purpose of this set-piece? To accuse the police of stitching Mitchell up. Or, as he himself put it: ‘I am speaking on behalf of all those who may not have been able to fight back against police misconduct and have not had the support that I have had.’
It’s quite a statement, endorsed as it is by two senior members of the Conservative Party – which is why this press conference was surprisingly significant. This, remember, is the party traditionally identified with the police, not with opposition to the police. It is the party of Robert Peel, the nineteenth-century Tory prime minister and founder of the modern police force; it is the party of law and order, the party inclined to talk about the protection of the British way of life. And yet, there they are, two white-haired, dyed-blue Tories, pitching themselves into battle against the police, and invoking past recipients of filthy injustice while doing so. As with its leaders’ support for gay marriage, and its obsessession with ‘detoxifying the brand’, the modern Tory Party’s willingness to divest itself of its own tradition, its own putative values, was writ large in Mitchell’s press conference.
With Plebgate, there is the ostensible ‘he said, he said’ story. In September last year, Mitchell was forced to resign because Downing Street police officers, having stopped Mitchell cycling past security, accused him of saying the following: ‘Best you learn your fucking place… You don’t run this fucking government’, before uttering the killer line, ‘you’re fucking plebs’. Several police officers corroborated the story, and Cameron, unwilling to believe Mitchell, urged him to shuffle off, which he duly did in a cloud of denials. Then, in December last year, Channel 4’s Dispatches threw the whole affair open, when it exposed something that looked more than a little like a police stitch-up, complete with officers posing as false witnesses, and doubt-shedding CCTV footage. The Crown Prosecution Service has since become involved – although it has recently concluded that there is insufficient evidence to charge any of the officers – and the Met itself has announced that five officers will face misconduct panels, although officer Toby Rowland, who made the initial allegations, remains in the clear.
So far, so The Only Way is Westminster. Yet although the backbiting and badmouthing between particular politicians and police officers appears to be more the stuff of reality TV than the affairs of the state, it does capture something of the nature of the changeling Conservative Party.
Historically, the Tory Party could be relied upon to defend British institutions, from the palace to the village fete, just as, in turn, those institutions tended to support the Tory Party. It wasn’t only the Church of England that was seen as the Tory party at prayer. The armed forces were the Tory party at war, and the police were the Tory party in control. The veins of this institutional edifice, not to mention the British state itself, ran blue.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in the case of the police. Upon becoming prime minister in 1979, Tory leader Margaret Thatcher gave the police a 45 per cent pay rise, stating ‘We must have a strong and experienced police force’. Throughout the 1980s, the police paid the Tories back in spades – by fighting their political battles, whether on the streets of Brixton or in the pit villages of Yorkshire during the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike. There was no shortage of what Mitchell calls ‘police misconduct’ back then, as the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 was to make perfectly clear. But neither was their any inclination on the Tories’ part to focus on this misconduct at the expense of their traditional and ideological support of the police. They were on the same side – the side of law and order, the side of security, the side that is conserving the status quo.
But no more. The Conservatives have a lost a sense of what they are as a party, which is hardly surprising given their social roots have almost dried up, aside from ageing straggles of support largely in the south east of England. They are now in the process, with the Blair-lite Cameron at the helm, of refashioning themselves for this era of non-party politics, disavowing everything that they once were in the name of ‘detoxification’. This is why, in the wake of home secretary Theresa May’s war with the police over pay and conditions, Mitchell, with the rather martial Davis at his side, thinks nothing of placing himself in the lineage of anti-police sentiment. After all, the ties – traditional or ideological – that once bound the Tories to the police have long since loosened.
Plebgate also shows that the police, too, are just as discombobulated by the break-up of the old political allegiances and traditions as the Tories are. After all, they have been waging a low-level war with their one-time allies ever since the Conservatives entered into government in 2010. The alleged stitching-up of Mitchell was merely the low-light in this intra-state bitchfest. This was clear at the Tories’ 2012 party conference, where the Police Federation, the police’s de facto trade union, paraded around wearing ‘PC Pleb’ t-shirts as part of their protest over pay and conditions. Given the police’s political dislocation, its want of the support and legitimation it once had from the Tories, it is perhaps unsurprising that it seems to be in the grip of low-level crises, be it the misbehaviour of undercover cops, the oddly inactive reaction to the London riots, or the persistent revival of past misdemeanours, from Hillsborough to Orgreave. It appears as an institution that no longer believes in itself. If it remains the long arm of the state, it does so in withered form.
Not that Britain’s nominal left emerges from Plebgate with any credit either. It was the idiotic liberal commentariat narrative, with the Tories painted as entitled Etonian poshos dedicated to crushing the lower orders, that fuelled Plebgate in the first place. Because it not only provided the police with the script with which they hung Mitchell out to dry; it also meant that too many commentators and journos were utterly unquestioning when the initial allegations were made. It was just obvious that Mitchell called the officers plebs; he’s a Tory and he’s posh. As one Guardian pundit eagerly put it, when Mitchell called the two police officers plebs, he revealed the ‘class-based bigotry’ still lurking beneath the new Tory brand. Which Mitchell might have done, if he’d actually used the word ‘plebs’ – which seems increasingly unlikely.
So while the whole Plebgate farce might be tedious and unedifying, it does show that the British state, and British political culture, is in, well, a bit of a state.
Tim Black is deputy editor off spiked.
Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire/Press Association Images