I suppose it is a measure of our tolerance for what my
English teacher used to call ‘unsavoury language’ that a senior parliamentary
figure is excoriated in the press, not so much for using three popular expletives
but rather for employing the word ‘pleb’.
The unsavoury words in this instance, directed at a
female police officer when she refused to open the main security gate to 10
Downing Street, appeared in the following tirade: “Best you learn your fucking
place … you don’t run this fucking government … you’re fucking plebs.”
They were uttered by Andrew Mitchell, Conservative
Chief Whip in the House of Commons, who was cycling home after a meeting with
the Prime Minister. Mr. Mitchell, it
should be noted, was known at his public school as Thrasher, for his abrasive
manner. It should also be said that this
is a vice – or virtue, if you prefer – that he is often obliged to deploy in
his role as the government’s chief enforcement officer in parliament.
Chambers dictionary defines ‘pleb’ as ‘a person of
unpolished manners or vulgar tastes; a plebeian; a boor’. The word is derived from ‘plebeian’, which
the same dictionary defines as a term describing the untitled public of ancient
Rome; ‘of the common people; low-born; vulgar; lacking taste or refinement’.
Mitchell’s principal offence – which has led
predictably to calls from the Labour benches for his resignation, or at least
for an enquiry – is not that he sprinkled his rant with the F word but that by
invoking the P word he has undermined the government’s long-running campaign to
paint the Conservative Party as an organization that transcends class
That complaint, as many commentators have duly noted, might
be considered rich, coming from a government with a cabinet largely drawn from
Britain’s top public schools, and explains why an inconsequential incident, a
temper tantrum possibly fueled by a liquid lunch, has been allowed to dominate
the front pages for the past four days.
If I had been the copper on duty I would have nicked
him on the spot, under suspicion of being intoxicated while in charge of a
The silly season used to end in August.