All right, he’s eaten dirt. Andrew Mitchell, Chief Whip, has now apologised to the Prime Minister and apologised profusely to the policeman he may or may not have called a pleb. In a statement today – prudently, he declined offers of radio interviews – Mitchell admitted that he ‘did not treat the police with the respect they deserve’ when on Wednesday evening one of them refused to allow him to ride his bicycle out of the Downing Street gate and directed him instead to the pedestrian one. In the outburst that followed, he is said to have told the man that he didn’t run the government. Well, that makes two of them; neither does the Chief Whip.
Anyway, Mitchell’s grovel hasn’t cut much ice with the Police Federation which says he should resign and for good measure says his behaviour was ‘particularly disappointing’ in the week when two policewomen were murdered in Manchester. Although – wouldn’t you agree? – there isn’t really some sort of continuum of disrespect that runs from losing it with an officer to throwing a grenade at policewomen.
I think we can agree that we shouldn’t shout at people who are only trying to do their job, especially if you’re a cabinet minister. It looks bad. It looks especially bad if you’re known to be filthy rich – or at least, relatively well-to-do – and you call a public servant a pleb. Wealthy members of the government have to tread very carefully lest they come across as arrogant. It was one of the things that stuck in the craw of many commentators when Mitchell was presiding over an increase in the international aid budget when he was in charge at Dfid, that he was personally wealthy, and didn’t seem to see the problem of handing ever greater amounts of largesse to other countries at the expense of those at home whose pips were squeaking. Telling a pleb he doesn’t know his place, which is what Mr Mitchell says he didn’t say, would fit nicely with the stereotype.
Still, my sympathies are with Mitchell. Which of us has not found ourselves in an altercation with some bit of officialdom and ended up having to swallow our wrath in the knowledge that you can never get the better of a bureaucrat? I find it especially galling at airports, having to give up items of handbaggage that pose no possible threat to anyone yet which fall foul of the regulations. You can’t argue but you do and it does no good. And quite often, the official in question appears to take a certain pleasure in knowing that the power is all his or hers. It may be that the police officer who told Mitchell not to leave by the usual gate was nice and apologetic about it; or perhaps he rather enjoyed himself. Mitchell still was entitled to say that he’d done it before, that he posed no threat to anyone by cycling out of the unauthorised gate and if it was risky, well, he’d run the risk. He was wrong to shout, but there was undoubted provocation. I’d have been annoyed too, but as one pleb to another, I’d have put it some other way.