Thursday, 27 November 2014

Whips and Plebs

Not knowing the man personally, I don't feel entitled to have a go at him. Nor excuse him, either.

I mean Andrew Mitchell, who in September 2012 had a bad-tempered exchange with policemen on duty at the main gates to Downing Street. Mr Mitchell, in a hurry, wished the gates opened so that he could ride his bicycle through, rather than wheel it out through the pedestrian gate off to one side. The policemen on duty refused his request, which annoyed Mr Mitchell. Some unhappy language was used by him. He was exasperated. He admitted that it was 'bad language'.

One policeman, sensing that this was an incident likely to be taken further, wrote down in his official notebook the gist of what Mr Mitchell did and said, and particularly recorded his saying the word 'pleb'. Mr Mitchell later denied that he had uttered this word, the use of which had of course insulted the police. His denial implied that the policeman had written down something he had made up. Reputations for honesty were now at stake. Mr Mitchell brought a libel action to clear the slur against his name, and show instead that the police were lying.

But the notebook entry was strong contemporary written evidence. It helped to persuade the judge in the ensuing libel action that the high words used did include this derogatory word, and that Mr Mitchell was not right when he stoutly maintained that no such word had passed his lips. He therefore lost the libel action, and it followed that the policeman who recorded the word 'pleb' had been an honest man.

Losing the case will cost Mr Mitchell dear. Not just the costs awarded against him. His political career is in tatters.

'Chief Whip' was Mr Mitchell's job just before this 2012 altercation with officers of the law. I had always understood that a Whip was a kind of political-party prefect who made sure that as many as possible of the MPs of his own party were present in the House for an important vote on this or that, and moreover voted in the way the party leader wanted them to. And not abstain, nor vote with the opposition. The Chief Whip was the ringmaster, the one who would lean on you most.

Well, I wasn't far wrong. Here for instance is the article in Wikipedia all about the office of Chief Whip: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chief_Whip. I now know from that more than I've ever realised before about the Westminster job appointment system! If I read it correctly, the Chief Whip never speaks in debates, but is a powerful person in the background. He's a kind of enforcer, whom you defy at some risk to your political career, because he has a direct mandate from the Prime Minister. I imagine that independent-minded backbench MPs must spend a lot of effort and ingenuity dodging the Chief Whip.

Given that the Chief Whip essentially has to bully MPs into toeing the party line, it requires a person of force and high self-esteem, who will snarl and threaten if soft words do not prevail. I can't believe this is a stress-free job, considering what depends on it. I'm thinking that if you or I were appointed Chief Whip, we too would find ourselves losing our cool now and then.

So such a person might well be angered, or take offence, if an ordinary police officer thwarted them for apparently no very good reason. You can see how that might easily be so. Certainly in the small matter of opening a security gate, whatever the rules. They might flip. Just as Mr Mitchell flipped.

I wonder if a different form of words would have opened that gate? Something on the lines of Hello, you scallywags. It's only me. Any chance at all of letting me through the gate like you did at lunchtime? Which, if met with a Sorry, sir. Can't oblige, not this time. Not even for you. Everyone has to use the side gate tonight. Thank you very much, sir. Have a good evening would not involve a slur on anyone's dignity or honesty. An impossible counsel of perfection, perhaps.

As for the word pleb, it is indeed redolent of betters talking down to inferiors. I wouldn't use it. It's too suggestive of the public-school attitude. And I'm a grammar-school kid.

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