I am doing best not to stare at my twitter feed watching the #plebgate tweets scroll on screen from several illustrious public affairs correspondents sitting in on the libel trial between Andrew Mitchell, The Sun Newspaper and PC Rowland. I do have other things to do!!
It all hinges on this word 'pleb'. Whilst Mr Mitchell has admitted to using some (quoting Lord Coe) "fruity" language, he categorically denies using the word pleb, and indeed adding f*****g in front of it.
Several tweeters express surprise as to why such a word is so controversial or even toxic. How can a this word which ranks several points on the 'swearing scale' lower than some of the words that Mr Mitchell has said he did use, be so bad?
What is this all about?
This is where my long experience as a political hack comes in: forged, in part, on the student union politics of the late 1970s. Reading University Student's Union was not like the LSE or other hotbeds of radicalism at the time, Indeed we only had one member of the International Socialists (later the SWP) who regularly got up to speak. And he was a rather genial and bearded post doc scientist...
But we did have a fair few members of the Federation of Conservative Students many of whom were studying to be estate managers at the Faculty of Urban and Rural Studies (I think that it what it was called...) Invariably most were from lesser known public schools but with a smattering of some of the more well known ones. I would say this wouldn't I, but most of them were arrogant & obnoxious characters who enjoyed heckling the debates after a few pints from the back of the room.
This is where I heard the word 'pleb' first.
Their use of the word summed up their view of people who were not as wealthy as them or, in their eyes, not as worthy as them. The term pleb encapsulates in one toxic lump the whole basis of the class system. Any political hack with a long history knows this. And that includes almost every MP currently sitting in Parliament.
Now, despite what people think, I really don't know whether Mr Mitchell used this word on that fateful night or not. And I hope that the current court case uncovers some truth, real truth. It probably won't if I am honest (unless the CCTV cameras at Downing Street are suddenly discovered to have an audio recording facility and the sound tapes miraculously appear...) I do have my suspicions as to what happened on this and perhaps other nights but I won't be writing about those for fear of litigation!!
I can certainly conceive of the possibility that either Mr Mitchell, or PC Rowland or indeed both are being, shall we say, economical with the truth. I can also conceive of the possibility that both are telling his own version of the what happened with absolute integrity, honesty and truth. (Memory can be a fickle thing especially in moments of high emotion. I speak as psychologist here.)
But the question I am left with, given what we know so far, is did PC Rowland have the political wit at that moment of writing up his notes, to land upon a (fake or true?) word that had such toxicity? Since I do not know PC Rowland, I can say in all honesty, I really have no idea.
But... I know a little bit about police culture and police regulations. Police Officers are forbidden to belong to a political party. I would also speculate that the police officers who are selected to look after security at Downing Street would be people with little interest in party politics, either now or previously. Most police officers I know, have had little involvement in the cut and thrust of political meetings. On this basis, I would speculate that only a few police officers (until now) knew quite how poisonous the word 'pleb' is. But I am happy to be corrected.
So it seems to me, if I was a lawyer on Mr Mitchell's team, I would have done everything I could to be able to show in court that (if this were to be the case) PC Rowland was indeed one of those few and chose (or perhaps had been advised) to use the word 'pleb' in a specifically targeted way. We shall see if this happens, or not.
I would suggest that had Mr Mitchell been accused of using the word 'plod' (which I believe is pretty darn distasteful to most police officers), he would still be in government. Plod is simply not nearly as toxic to the wider political community as pleb.
But we shall see, as the court case continues....
My comment is about this sentence: 'Police Officers are forbidden to belong to a political party'.
Certainly for many years this was the common assumption that Police Regulations included this, but now over a decade ago these regulations were changed. They are no easy to find via Google.
Two citations, first from the Superintendent's Association, citing the 2003 Regulations: 'A member of a police force shall at all times abstain from any activity which is likely to interfere with the impartial discharge of his duties or which is likely to give rise to the impression amongst members of the public that it may so interfere; and in particular a member of a police force shall not take any active part in politics'.
From: http://www.policesupers.com/playing-safe/ and the Regulations themselves: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2003/527/made
Secondly from a local Police Federation website: 'Members must abstain from any activity which is likely to interfere with the impartial discharge of duty or likely to give rise to the impression that the activity may do so. Police officers are also required not to take any active part in politics'.
I recall an explantion being circulated at the time that police officers were NOT banned from being members of a political party; note later membership of the BNP was banned.
What actually is 'any active part in politics' ? Having a political view is recognised as a right, so 'active part' was interpreted as open activity which could be seen by those one policed, for example delivering election leaflets were your employment was known, but not near home where your employment was not known.
Incidentally very few police officers to my knowledge were members of any political party and a good number - maybe even the majority - did not vote in any elections.
I would be VERY surprised that any police officer used the word 'pleb' or understood what plebian meant. At one point 'proles' was used long ago and faded away quickly.
Thanks for your insights and information, David. I recall the word 'proles' from my schooldays in Portsmouth. Plebs came later (as it were!)Delete