Greasy Pole: Who You Calling A Pleb?
For more than three years the nation was gripped in paralysing uncertainty. Was that policeman, standing on guard on 19 September 2012 at the very centre of British government, being petulant and obstructive when he refused to allow a man with a bicycle to wheel it through the main gate? Was he telling the truth when he said that the cyclist abruptly responded with a word which, even without being backed up in abusive swearing, was cruelly offensive? Was it so urgent that the cyclist should not be delayed because he was going to one of London’s most exclusive clubs? And during those three years why did so many participants in the incident appear to change their minds about what happened?
High Court Judgment
The matter eventually came to a head with the conclusion of a libel case at the High Court in late November 2014 when Mr Justice Mitting ruled that Andrew Mitchell MP, ex-Minister of International Development, ex -Government Chief Whip, had behaved ‘childishly’ when he told PC Toby Rowland at the Downing Street gates that he, and the other police officers on duty there, were ‘fucking plebs’. The judge did not accept Mitchell’s defence that Rowland had made that up; his opinion, in the coldest terms, was that Rowland was not capable of anything so subtle and effective: he was ‘…not the sort of man who would have had 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’. So Mitchell lost his libel case, which landed him with a massive debt starting at £300,000 but which could run into millions.
Perhaps to emphasise the basis for his decision, Mitting chose to describe the word ‘Plebs’ as ‘politically toxic’. That may not be universally agreed; for what about that adjectival word which apparently Mitchell often uses, and which he uttered before ‘pleb’, which may be considered to be the more toxic – more aggressive, more emphatic, more friendly to being spat at a victim (one of the facts to emerge from the libel hearings was that there had been 16 recorded incidents of Mitchell clashing with the police in Westminster, including one which involved a direct insult). In comparison ‘pleb’ is the less pejorative word, easier to use in exasperation rather than anger. It is a shortened version of ‘plebeian’ for the underdogs – the more common people – of ancient Rome, expanded to cover anyone behaving in a coarse or vulgar manner. In the case of Mitchell there is more to it than that. He was a pupil at Rugby School, where he attained the exalted rank of a prefect known, for his harshly disciplinarian manner, as ‘Slasher’. Among the privileged toffs of Rugby it was common for the non-teaching staff to be known, contemptuously, as plebs. At Jesus College in Cambridge, where Mitchell went after Rugby, the word was used for workers such as cleaners, porters and ‘townies’.
After Cambridge Mitchell had been employed as a trader at the merchant bank Lazards, making a great deal of money for himself before becoming an MP. He became notorious for his short temper and his abusive tirades against his staff. ‘He could be cantankerous and aggressive’ said one of his Ministry staff ‘…a horrible person to do business with.’ Although in some cases ‘business’ was what he was ready to ‘do’. For example there was the situation when, according to the Tory journalist Simon Heffer – one of his admirers – when he was International Development Secretary Mitchell agreed to some £500 million being paid to ‘consultancy’ firms which resulted in some handsome payouts within the firms. All in all, it was no coincidence that when he was embroiled in the stresses of Plebgate he had so little support from the other Tories (it was said that he kept a list of those he considered to be unreliable in that respect) that it was inevitable that Cameron sacked him.
So far Mitchell has not expanded on his concept of what he calls ‘plebs’. We know that they are the lower, in the sense of the exploited, class in society to the extent that it is permissible for ex-public school pupils to regard them with contempt. But he overlooks the fact that other members of the government prefer to adopt a more subtle and patronising – if equally contemptuous – attitude, describing them as ‘hard-working people’, when a more appropriate term would be ‘long suffering’. For example in 2011/12 according to the Joseph Rowntree Trust – who are heavily experienced in this field – there were 13 million of those ‘hard working’ ones in poverty, with a million of them being paid below the official living wage.
In this matter there is an instructive irony in George Orwell’s novel 1984, first published in 1949. In his bleak probe into the future, Orwell suggests a world divided into three super powers, constantly at war with each other while ruthlessly imposing a class society of meticulously unrelenting exploitation. In the state of Oceania the lower class is known not as ‘plebs’ but ‘proles’ – the different root of which does not relieve the misery of their lives. Even the music they are allowed is prepared for them at the Ministry of Truth on a kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator. The central character of the book, Winston Smith, feels he is almost alone in being aware of the situation. It is his belief that If There Is Hope It Lies With The Proles – until he is taken in by the Thought Police to learn to love Big Brother.
Purged of his expletives, Mitchell began his tirade against Rowland with the advice that ‘Best you learn your…place. You don’t run this…government’. It would indeed be progressive if the lower class in society, exploited and ridiculed as plebs or proles or hard working, took heed of this advice in the sense of understanding their position and the reasons for it and the universal problems which ensue from it. That would be the beginning of the end of all the negatives associated with capitalist society. And it would not need a Minister of the crown or a high court judge or a police officer.