Andrew Mitchell, privilege and the “P” word

Thrasher : he’s a bully.

Andrew Mitchell’s outburst at the police guarding Downing Street has rumbled on for the last 4 days. Mitchell denies that he used salty language or, more importantly, the word “pleb”. The police, on the other hand, insist that Mitchell laid into them with verbal assaults. So we have a lying politician on one side and the police, who frequently lie and cover things up, on the other. Who is right?

Mitchell, until the recent cabinet reshuffle, was the International Development Secretary. He is now Chief Whip, a role that often requires arm-twisting, threats and outright bullying to maintain discipline on the government or opposition benches. In other words, he’s suited to the job. Mitchell is a product of Britain’s public schools, having been to Rugby, which, as we are reminded, was the setting for Tom Brown’s School Days and Flashman. As many of us know, the public schools have or had an institutionalized regime of bullying that was known as “fagging”. This culture of bullying is deeply ingrained and is carried forward into adulthood. It percolates through society’s layers. It has become the staple of television comedy.

Thus far only one Tory journalist has come out to defend Mitchell. This is a particularly fawning piece from Matthew d’Ancona.

But – sorry – I don’t buy it. Mitchell has a temper, and has been known to turn a colour that is best described as “Tory pink”. But it is not in him to say such a thing. An old-school Conservative he may be, but the school in question is the One Nation Academy, in which courtesy and decency have always been at the core of the curriculum.

The very same paper also carried this story, which casts aspersions on d’Ancona’s apology and Mitchell’s apparent ‘niceness’.

He had found out that I had written an article which he feared would “damage” the Conservative Party. “You have betrayed the trust of me and the Conservative Party,” he told me.

At first I thought he was joking. I was a 21-year-old student and the story was for a work experience placement at a national newspaper.

The article was my honest opinion about the trip to Rwanda in August 2009. While Mr Mitchell and the Conservatives went there with the best of intentions, the reality once we arrived was different.

The Daily Mail is positively fuming with rage, conscripting the widower of murdered cop, Sharon Beshenivsky, to its side,

‘David Cameron should be responsible for what his ministers say, they are his ministers and they are working with him,’ he told Sky News.

‘Ministers shouldn’t be going round foul-mouthing police officers, especially under the current circumstances.’

Nicholas Watt in The Guardian is a little kinder,

Mitchell, 56, does, however, have two character flaws. These explain why he ran into difficulty at the Downing Street security gates last Wednesday evening and why he is taking time to remove the cloud above him.

While Mitchell can be immensely charming, he has a short temper, as the armed police officers found out when they declined to open the security gates to allow him to leave on his bike. He can also fix opponents with a withering look and has been known to make the odd caustic remark.

Mitchell’s qualities – charm, brains and a mischievous sense of humour – have served him well in his 20 years in parliament. But his flaws, including an ability to make enemies, mean there is no shortage of Tory MPs lapping up every moment of his battle with the police.

Watt also tells us that Mitchell’s nickname at Rugby was “Thrasher”. Charming.

But it isn’t the swear words that have people in a rage, it’s the word “pleb”, which is the diminutive of the word “plebeian” (the word is also used to describe a freshman at the various US military colleges).This word was used to describe the middle and lower orders of Roman society; the ordinary folk. The patricians,  were the other group who sat in the Senate and ran the state and were there by dint of their circumstances of birth. These days it is only ever used in disparaging terms. Therefore the use of this word by a former public schoolboy and ex-banker to someone in the Metropolitan Police, should be seen for what it is: an insult and a reminder of the Great British class divide.

But what about the police? We know that they have a habit of concealing things and making things up and the list of their misdeeds is as long as your arm. We also know that the government wants to take on the police over pensions. Their man in London City Hall, Stephen  Greenhalgh, has a reputation as a mad slasher from his time at Hammersmith and Fulham Council. Greenhalgh has already mooted the idea of closing police stations and moving some of them to the back of WH Smith to join what’s left of Britain’s post offices (I’m being sarcastic by the way). Many functions that were once carried out by the police, including forensics, are being outsourced to companies like Serco.

The Cat isn’t normally inclined to side with the police. However given Mitchell’s form, it is reasonable to conclude that he abused his position as a member of the government. The Telegraph has details of the police log, which you can see here.  According to this Guardian/ICM snap poll, the police are more popular than the government, which is quite an accomplishment given Hillsborough, Ian Tomlinson, Leveson…

Who’d have thunk it, eh?

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