Poor Andrew Mitchell. Poor, poor shouty minister man.
For those who don’t already know, Andrew Mitchell is the Conservative Chief Whip, a man of supposedly prodigious standing, who this week lost his cool when trying to leave Downing Street on his bike. At least, lost his cool is how his communications staff might like us to refer to it. Hipsters lose their cool when their hats blow off and they have to chase it down Brick Lane. Mr Mitchell on the other hand had a full blown mega meltdown and was threatened with arrest when Police Officers refused to let him cycle through the main gates at Downing Street.
What followed was a tirade of abuse, but extraordinarily it’s not the shouting or swearing that has caused the greatest offence but the use of the dreaded four letter word: ‘Pleb’. In Ancient Rome ‘pleb’, was simply a shortening of the Latin word ‘plebeian’, the term for a class of non-aristocratic landowners. These days, however, the term has fallen into common parlance in a pejorative sense only. In fact this unassuming four letter word has proved more offensive than several of the other four letter words Mitchell allegedly bandied about. So offensive in fact, to great swathes of the public that the whole incident now seems destined never to fade away; it’s on the TV, in the papers and on the radio. It’s got us talking. We care because the vast majority of citizens are like those policemen, working normal hours, in normal locations for an average wage (the Thick of It would call these citizens ‘Quiet Bat People’). The majority are not the ministers responsible for policy change and deciding how much money is taken for taxes and whether it goes to schools or armies. Whether you are educated or not the word “pleb” is an insult to all of us, because it suggests that our ministers, our politicians, the people who should have all our best interests at heart have no respect for those people they deem ‘inferior’ to themselves. At a time when there is already little trust towards politicians, (you only have to watch Clegg’s apology video to see what I mean,) it is hard to believe they are really looking out for our best interests, if they will openly refer to regular citizens as “Plebs”.
Now I’m not saying that in this case the police were right, I don’t know and I wasn’t there. To be honest I struggle to understand how a situation like this could have escalated at all- big gate/little gate, ultimately the difference is futile (it was, after all, destined to become a media scandal as soon as the hacks clocked that suffix). I do, however, think that this story is relevant to all of us. There are lessons to be learnt from Mr Mitchell’s behaviour. In this case a sense of entitlement and superiority led to a public cry of outrage and calls for dismissal, and whilst we aren’t all possibly about to face the firing line it is not unfeasible that any one of us could find ourselves in a similar position. We are all of us guilty of a different kind of social snobbery to Mr Mitchell – who hasn’t looked down on someone we perceive to be less cool, interesting or intelligent than ourselves. It’s human nature. But then it’s also human nature not to wear clothes, and we curb that- well, most of us. For Mr Mitchell an apology may not be enough to save his career, but for the rest of us his behaviour may be the kick up the proverbial backside we need to treat each other with a little bit more respect and humility. And that, Mr Mitchell, is the kind of discipline we really need.