Ah Tories. Interesting specimens aren’t they? Admittedly I’m not a fan, but I must say I appreciate their efforts to make life easier for leftwingers such as myself. Some days we don’t even have to get out of bed to make them look bad.
Last Friday was one of those days. If you haven’t heard yet (and if you haven’t, seriously: where have you been?), one Andrew Mitchell – chief whip, multimillionaire, and former merchant banker – allegedly informed two police officers that they were “fucking plebs” who “best learn their place“. After initially denying using “‘any of the words that have been reported”, he has since admitted swearing, though still argues that he didn’t use the word “pleb”. At a time of exceptional tragedy for the police, the kindest thing you can say about the chief whip is that he is not burdened with a keen sense of appropriate timing.
As often with such “gaffes”, as they are euphemistically called, the public response is more instructive than the allegations themselves. So it was interesting to note the reaction to the story from the leftwing Twitterati, which was to side a little uncomfortably with the police in the way that one might reluctantly defend the actions of a drunken family member. Having to choose between Tories and the police force is never going to be easy for the left, but it did make me wonder what the reaction might have been had Mitchell been accused of making racist comments towards a black officer. Would our condemnation have been begrudging then? Probably not.
See, the sad thing about this whole affair is that, in a way, Mitchell has already won. He may have been accused of making ugly, class-based slurs, but thanks to the tireless propaganda of his party, he’s more likely to be portrayed as rude rather than bigoted.
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.
The press has already transformed Mitchell’s transgression from one of class-based bigotry to one of colourful language – describing his rant primarily as “foul-mouthed” and “rude”, as though that’s all there is to it.
The same day he unleashed his tirade, the actress Sheridan Smith gave an interview to Radio 4’s Today programme about her appearance as the lead in Hedda Gabler. She has in the past described herself as a “scrubber” from Doncaster, condemned to play “chavs and slappers”. It’s a strange quirk of a society where class snobbery is so entrenched that the victims of discrimination end up applying it themselves, either as an attempt to distance themselves from a negative stereotype, or because they have internalised the discrimination so much that it is accepted as the natural order of things, rather than something that should be challenged and changed.
Without an acknowledgement that class-based discrimination is unacceptable, the MPs who are cutting wages, jobs and services will be allowed to peddle the myths that blame impoverished people for their own difficult circumstances.
The day before the Mitchell story broke, Tory MP Damian Collins was accused of telling young unemployed people they should busk to make money if they can’t get paid jobs. That the economy might not quite be able to accommodate a million buskers doesn’t matter as long as the idea that unemployment is the result of the laziness of the underclass persists.
So 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. We shouldn’t stand for it.
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