Monday, September 24, 2012

It isn't his fault - it's his background.

Boris Johnson thinks that people who swear at police officers should expect to be arrested. David Cameron thinks that they can be Chief Whip. I agree with Boris.

It is also a classic example of how not to handle a story. It started out so well - Mitchell apologised promptly on Friday night as the story broke. If he had left it at that, the story would have died a death over the weekend and would have been nothing more than a footnote that Labour would have rolled out occasionally to beat the Tories over being toffs. His error was to move past a simple apology and deny the specific words used - without explaining what he did say that now necessitated an apology. His non-statement this morning, dragging live OB crews to the door of the Cabinet Office for him to repeat on camera exactly what he said last week, has merely fuelled the fire. At the start, I didn't think it would be an event that could precipitate a resignation, but now, I'm not so sure.

BBC Radio WM have been trying to find a Tory MP to defend their local colleague and Chief Whip, but nobody has been prepared to put their head above the parapet. They initially had agreement from Richard Shepherd, MP for Aldridge Brownhills to come on, but he's now unavailable. Even the Tory candidate for Police & Crime Commissioner is too busy to comment on air, as he has non-political stuff to do today - although he has been engaged in a long twitter exchange with Cllr Bob Jones, the Labour candidate, this morning. It looks very much like Mitchell has been cut loose by his colleagues. Even Nick Clegg, interviewed on BBC Radio 4's agenda-setting Today programme a few minutes after Mitchell's non-apologetic apology this morning, offered only the most lukewarm of support.

Mitchell has essentially accused two armed police officers, trusted to guard the gates of Downing Street and other high value targets around London, of lying. Their notebooks - a contemporaneous record that would be relied on to support evidence in court - record the words used prior to him being asked to desist and warned of arrest, at which point he apparently calmed down.
"Open this gate. I'm the Chief Whip. I'm telling you - I'm the Chief Whip and I'm coming through these gates... Best you learn your fucking place.... you don't run this fucking government... you're fucking plebs"
The officers took notes of the exchange to cover themselves as they were clearly aware that this was not likely to be the end of the matter. As a professor of classics pointed out on the Today programme this morning, this is not an insult that the police would be likely to make up, although it is exactly the sort of phrasing someone with Andrew Mitchell's background would be likely to use. (Another classicist writes here). While I'm perfectly well aware that police officers have been known to collude and lie, I struggle to find a reason for them to do it here. Starting a fight with a VIP is not likely to end well for the officers involved. If there is a further witness out there - perhaps a tourist with a video camera - then the situation could change for Mr Mitchell.

On a practical level, as Alistair Campbell points out, being nice to people is much easier and actually brings benefits. When you need rules bent a little to help you with a problem like a forgotten pass, being courteous will pay dividends. More importantly, the officers on the gate represent us all - we empower members of the public to police us by consent. Insult them and you insult us all. Alistair Campbell also points out that
If there is one group of people you don’t want offside during an election, it’s the cops, or the teachers, or the nurses, or the doctors, or the public. Every time the government alienates someone working for them, the ripples fan out, and eventually they meet other ripples, which become a flood.
On the one hand, this could be seen as an outburst of bad temper by a senior government official, but I would argue that it is indicative of a nastier attitude. The Cabinet is populated by people with a sense of entitlement - many have had extraordinarily gilded lives, with paths smoothed from top end public schools through to top universities and thence onwards to well-paid jobs and political advancement and moving in circles of those who have similarly 'made it.' It shouldn't come as a surprise that they find it hard to relate to others that they perceive to be of lesser status or value. The problem is that Cameron has been trying to conceal this for years - he's notoriously sensitive about being tagged as an out of touch toff, despite the unerring accuracy of this definition. Outbursts like Andrew Mitchell's play exactly into that increasingly popular view of Cameron's government cronies.

The appalling media handling isn't really the story. Mitchell has revealed the inner thinking of this government. Mitchell isn't the exception - his foul-mouthed insults have confirmed exactly what the senior levels of this government think of all of public servants and, by extension, those of us not fortunate enough to have been born into the ruling class. It is a view drenched in class warfare, something for which the Tories and their useful idiots regularly criticise those of us on the left. Seems like they need to remove the plank from their own eyes.

Know your place, plebs. And mind how you go, now. Evening all.

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