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In the Wake of ‘plebgate’, Do Class Divisions Still Exist in the UK?

Posted on the 24 September 2012 by Periscope @periscopepost
After Andrew Mitchell outburst, does class matter in Britain? Social class under scrutiny.

The background

Conservative Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell is facing intense criticism after a confrontation with armed police officers at Downing Street. According to The Sun, the official police report claims Mitchell called the officers “plebs” and swore repeatedly after they refused to open security gates for him.

The Sun reported that Andrew Mitchell told police officers: “Best you learn your f***ing place. You don’t run this f***ing government. You’re f***ing plebs.”

Mitchell made a public apology for his behavior but denied the “pleb” allegations – for good reason, said The Guardian: “His position would be untenable if he was proved to have used the word, because it would lend support to Labour claims that the Tory leadership regards public servants – even those charged with guarding the prime minister – as socially inferior.”

Class bigotry is entrenched in the UK

“Years after John Major’s ‘classless society’ and Thatcher’s declaration that ‘there are only individuals’, the role of class has been airbrushed out of our interactions so successfully that a privileged man can sneer at two working people and avoid any real analysis of his actions,” wrote Ellie Mae O’Hagan in The Guardian. If Mitchell did use the p-word, this isn’t just rudeness; it’s bigotry. “When a member of the moneyed elite is accused of calling ordinary people ‘plebs’, we should perhaps respond by calling a spade a spade. Class-based bigotry is not OK,” said O’Hagan.

Posh isn’t a problem, snobbery is

Much as been made in the media of the fact that Mitchell comes from a privileged background, wrote Harry Phibbs at ConservativeHome, but poshness isn’t the real issue here: “There is no problem with poshness, but there is with awful sneering, prissy snobbery.” Just take the London Mayor as an example: “Boris Johnson is popular despite having been to Eton. Indeed the unapologetic aspect of it, the heartiness and eccentricity of his poshness adds to his popularity. Most important though is his ability to engage with everybody.  He may be rich but he is not against the poor.”

Mitchell wouldn’t have said ‘pleb’

If Mitchell did call the police “plebs”, it would be a massive scandal, and rightly so, said Matthew d’Ancona in The Telegraph: “It would confirm every ghastly suspicion that the Tory party is led by people who really do believe themselves born to rule and therefore regard the police as no more than proletarian shock-troops at their beck and call.” But, d’Ancona insisted, Mitchell simply isn’t that kind of person: “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.”

Storm in a teacup

“I wonder if we’ve lost a sense of proportion about this story,” wrote Peter McKay in The Daily Mail. “While police feelings may have been hurt, no one died.” The Police Federation has an “axe to grind” over pay cuts, so was always going to exploit this story. Besides, “why wasn’t he arrested if his behavior was as foul as the police suggest?”

A musical reconstruction of how Plebgate may have played out.

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