Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Andrew Mitchell and our rude new rulers

Why has Andrew Mitchell's altercation with a policeman become such a massive story?  Obviously, he has handled the situation badly, which never helps.  But it must also be in someone's interest to keep it going.  It's striking that so much information about the incident, including the supposedly confidential police report, has come into the public domain - mostly via the Sun.  This in itself shows that the auld alliance between News International and the Metropolitan Police is still in full working order, Leveson or no Leveson.  And it shows that, despite everything that has been revealed about the propensity of the police to embroider reality - including very recently with the Hillsborough report - police reports, even improperly leaked ones, still count as an authoritative source.

There's something odd about this aspect of the verbatim police report:


There were several members of public present as is the norm opposite the pedestrian gate and as we neared it, Mr MITCHELL said: "Best you learn your f------ place...you don’t run this f------ government...You’re f------ plebs." The members of public looked visibly shocked and I was somewhat taken aback by the language used and the view expressed by a senior government official.

Peter Hitchens wonders why none of the "visibly shocked" members of the public have come forward.  I had the same thought.  It is strange, isn't it?  One would have expected them by now to have had their faces and stories splashed across the Sun and to have given interviews to major news channels - and to have collected the hefty fee that they would have earned for sealing the Chief Whip's fate.  It can't be because they are material witnesses to a case that is still sub judice, since Mitchell wasn't arrested (proof perhaps that the police do "know their place" after all) and there doesn't seem to be any prospect of charges.

The media have helped keep the pot on the boil, meanwhile, by turning it into a story about class, which is something that the British press can never talk about too much.
 

Once upon a time, Mitchell's repeated and inelegant use of the word "fucking" would have caused a scandal, back in the day when the f-word was for the plebs and a gentleman would only utter it in the exclusive company of other gentleman and when he could be sure of no being overheard.  But constant swearing is what we expect of politicians these days, partly because of the demotic affectations with which our rulers seek to disguise their distance from the ordinary people who pay their wages and vote them into power but mainly because of The Thick of It.  A politician who didn't swear at colleagues or underlings when in  a state of high emotion would look distinctly odd and, no doubt, attract some degree of suspicion.

Focusing on the word "plebs" helps to frame the story as one of an arrogant, public-school toff showing his contempt for the lower orders.   Yet the disdainful attitude would have been equally apparent even without that piece of schoolyard Latin. It's in the swearing.  Swearing is a signifier of social distance: like the pronoun tu in Romance languages, it is a word used between intimates and to subordinates (though not, preferably, to children) but not to a social superior.  By calling the copper a "fucking" anything Mitchell was indulging in class condescension; "pleb" was just the gravy.  It's also misleadingly old-fashioned.  Class consciousness has always been with us, but what not for decades has there been quite so much naked revelling in power and money.

The incident would appear to have released a lot of pent-up dislike for our current rulers from across the political spectrum.  Polly Toynbee one would expect:



"Pleb" says not just how Cameron and co think, but it defines with deadly accuracy who they govern for. This stamps them as a Mitt Romney regime – not bothering with the plebs, not with the bottom half. This crystallises how they ignore those who are not their voters, not their leafy shire constituents. They govern for those who their class sometimes calls PLUs – "people like us". The social class of Cameron's crew hardly matters: what counts is whose side they are on. Without a shadow of a doubt, they rule for their own ruling class.

But Janet Daley is both more surprising and more to the point:

While most of us who associate with Conservatives do not get sworn at or described at "plebs", we (by which I mean those not included in a small circle of either known-since-childhood social intimates or devoted sycophants whose uncritical loyalty is beyond question) have been variously snubbed, dismissed, or found ourselves becoming pointedly invisible in the presence of people to whom we are no longer of use. Over the years, I have had Tory politicians with whom I have had dinner (sometimes in their own homes) look through me without recognition. Others who have been my guests for lunch, or with whom I have shared broadcasting panels, have apparently forgotten our many previous meetings when we encountered one another not long after. And oddly enough, this never, ever happens with Labour politicians – even though we are clearly in genial disagreement over major issues...

And again oddly, it is the Tory modernisers – perhaps because they are more likely to  be "toffs" than striving achievers from ordinary backgrounds – who are the worst. It is not the Thatcherite, aspirational, state school-educated Tories who look over your shoulder when they are talking to you: it is the snotty, condescending "one nation" paternalists for whom you are only of interest so long as you are being "supportive" (ie as faithful as a Labrador). No names, no pack drill, but you know who you are.

This chimes with what Damian Thompson (no pleb he) wrote about David Cameron not so long ago:

To put it bluntly, Dave is rude. More specifically, he exhibits the calculated rudeness of people with very nice manners.

That isn’t a contradiction in terms. Dave is one of those people who turns his good manners up and down like a dimmer switch. He uses them as a weapon. This is a speciality of the upper classes – and the black belts of the art, in my experience, are Old Etonians

...Cameron reminds me so much of certain Etonians I’ve met over the years. The moment they lost the upper hand in conversation, there would be a sudden pulling of rank, a deliberate glazing of the eyes, or a neatly aimed belittling joke of the sort that Dave employs at PMQs. As I say, these weren’t typical OEs: what marked them out was that going to Eton was the defining experience of their lives.

Andrew Mitchell was at Rugby, but that might be even worse.  At least Etonians have style.