Andrew Mitchell’s pleb gaffe: music to the ears of Ukippers

Our condescending, arrogant elite: even the judgment came with a ‘de haut en bas’ sting in the tail

Columnist Robert Chesshyre

So, according to Mr Justice Mitting, the former Conservative chief whip Andrew Mitchell did utter the toxic word “pleb” when a police officer refused to allow him to ride his bicycle out through the main gates of Downing Street two years ago.

Yesterday’s judgment brought the world of millionaire Mitchell crashing round his ears. He faces an estimated £2 million-plus legal bill and his days of high office are at an end. His defence – that, although he did lose his temper, he never let “pleb”, with its implications of caste superiority, escape his lips – was rejected “on the balance of probabilities” by the judge.

It was the third example in days of arrogance seemingly born of privilege bringing low – or at least into public disrepute – people in high places.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

First Emily Thornberry, the now former shadow attorney-general, issued her tweet showing ‘white van man’ in his habitat festooned with St George flags. Then David Mellor, one-time Tory minister, swore at a cabbie. Now the Mitchell disgrace.

These falls from grace must be music to the ears of Nigel Farage and Ukip: here is the evidence of the wide gulf between ‘them’ and ‘us’ that lies at the heart of the dissatisfaction with how we are governed, so successfully exploited by Faragistes.

Not only do the well-off feather their own nests while ordinary Joes become poorer, but these examples of public behaviour demonstrate that those who rule over us appear to believe there is one law for them and another for workaday folk whose role is to serve and show deference. Rumblings of discontent are set to become ever more apparent.

Even Mr Justice Mitting’s judgment in favour of PC Toby Rowland - the policeman who alleged that Mitchell had called him a pleb - came with de haut en bas sting in the tail.

PC Plod (for that was clearly the image of Mr Rowland that the judge had formed in his head) was not, said his lordship, “the sort of man who would have the wit, imagination or inclination to invent on the spur of the moment an account of what a senior politician had said to him in a temper”.

Here are shades here of Blandings Castle and PG Wodehouse. Would the butler have the speed of thought or inclination to invent an untruth and speak out-of-turn? Never - perish the thought.

However, if the judge erred, at least it was on the side of decency. Why should a member of the lower orders (as he clearly classed PC Rowland) not be capable of telling the truth?

Once there was graciousness, even if sometimes condescending, in high places: now there appears to be overweening haughtiness. So what has brought about these high-profile personal disasters and the attitude of mind behind them? Is there a common thread?

Mellor, of course, is not known as the most tactful (or sympathetic) of men, but his outburst caught the flavour of the mindset embodied in these incidents.

He called his cabbie a “smart-arsed little git” and a “sweaty, stupid little shit”, and waded deeper into the mire of his own making by listing with pride his own credentials: “I’ve been in the Cabinet. I am an award-winning broadcaster. I am a Queen’s Counsel. I don’t want to hear from you: shut the f*** up.”

Against the eminence of his fare, the taxi driver was supposed to wither and shut up. Instead he switched on a recorder and captured Mellor’s arrogance in all its horror.

An official of the RMT union, suggesting that his black-cab-driving members would now consider banning Mellor, commented: “His sneering and snobbish verbal assault says it all about the elite that run this country and their attitude towards the working classes they expect to transport them.”

Good riddance to the age of deference, one might say (though the millions who watch Downton Abbey suggest that many English remain forelock-touching at heart).

The Internet has changed everything, of course. Anyone can go online and say what previously would have stayed within the four walls of their homes or the local saloon bars.

Would Ed Miliband have moved with such alacrity to sack Miss Thornberry had not her fateful photo of the house in Strood (and with it the instant interpretation that Miss Thornberry was sending a coded message) gone on Twitter, thus letting the genie out of the bottle? Ten years ago, she would have giggled with family and colleagues over a glass of wine about “these dreadful people”.

Almost everyone - taxi drivers included - now carries the kit to record and film what happens around them. (It is a pity for Mitchell, perhaps, that none of the police officers in Downing Street that fateful evening had a recorder. Had what he actually said been nailed down then, he would have been spared the folly and expense of going into the libel courts.)

And then there are live microphones: think of Gordon Brown and his overheard “bigoted woman” jibe about Mrs Gillian Duffy at the last election.

I looked Andrew Mitchell up in Who’s Who, the bible of the great and the good. He describes himself (because those who appear in the pages of Who’s Who pages write their own entries) as ‘The Right Honourable’.

Will Mitchell now have the grace to amend his entry or will the title (which comes with membership of the Cabinet and consequent elevation to the Privy Council) be stripped from him? Don’t hold your breath. Jeffrey Archer remains a peer of the realm.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Robert Chesshyre writes regularly on police culture and is a former US correspondent of The Observer. His books include ‘The Force: Inside the Police’ and 'When the Iron Lady Ruled Britain''.