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article imageOp-Ed: The strange case of Andrew Mitchell

By Steve Hayes     Sep 24, 2012 in Politics
London - This morning Conservative Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, made a public apology for not showing police officers "the respect they deserve". Yet, it was a very odd apology, for Mr Mitchell denied the offending words "attributed" to him.
The facts in the case are, one might think, relatively trivial. Mr Mitchell was told by police officers that he could not ride his bike through the Downing Street gate and he became angry and used bad language, for which he subsequently apologised. End of story, one might suppose. And Mr Mitchell, and the Conservative Party, would that it was so.
However, the case has become invested with symbolic significance. The police officers claim that Mitchell used the word "plebs". Again, one might not attach too much importance to this. After all, it merely denotes a free person who is not an aristo; and there is no suggestion that the police officers are in fact members of the aristocracy. They are, in fact, like the vast majority of the population both free and not aristos, that is, plebs.
But, of course, the row is not about what the word denotes. It is about the sense that members of the elite think they are above ordinary people. This simple altercation has come to stand as a symbol for the class divisions in society. It is a litmus test of whether, as the government claim, "we are all in this together", or whether the governing party is only concerned with the interests of those at the top of the socio-economic hierarchy.
In this context, the response of Prime Minister David Cameron is, perhaps, less than politically astute. His assertion that there is no need for an investigation, that it is not necessary to know what was actually said, reveals a government that does not take seriously the concerns of ordinary people. In this way, he can only be seen to be siding with the patricians against the plebs.
Whilst the government might wish to simply draw a line and move on, the Police Federation take a rather different view. They say that Mitchell's apology is nothing of the sort, as by denying the words attributed to him, he is effectively accusing the officers of lying. This interpretation is lent credence by the fact that whilst Mr Mitchell denies using the words attributed to him, he will not state what words he did use.
This lack of clarity has encouraged not only the Police Federation to demand an inquiry, but also the Labour opposition. Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, in a clear attempt to cast doubt on Mitchell's story, said:
Andrew Mitchell’s account of what went on is unravelling day by day and we need to know exactly what happened.
Worse still for the government, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has stated that Mitchell needs to provide full details of the incident, which would require an investigation. In a clear reference to the class origins of senior Conservatives, Vince Cable, another leading Liberal Democrat member of the coalition government, told his party conference:
I've been told that jokes about social class are not good for the unity of the coalition. But as a mere pleb, I couldn't resist it.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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