Plēbēius sum; Plēbēius es; nunc omnes plēbēii sumus

Or, “I’m a pleb; You’re a pleb; we are all plebs now“, for those of us without the benefit of an expensive classics education.

One of the interesting things about Andrew Mitchell’s unfortunate confrontation with a Downing Street plod is the seemingly toxic connotations this word still has in the minds of many. Indeed, it’s seen as a rather “Flashman-like way” referring to the hoi polloi, if you agree with Polly Toynbee in today’s Guardian. I’m not the greatest fan of Toynbee’s writing, seeming to maintain a quite admirable level of hysteria, even when the occasion calls for something else.

However, the power of the modern Plebeian is overlooked at the peril of the political classes. The origin of the word is, of course, Roman. The Plebeians were the middle classes of Rome, who owned property and kept the city running: the tradesmen, craftsmen and shopkeepers, inter alia. Below them sat the capite censi, those counted by head in the census, whose worth was very little. Indeed, these are the people that even the plebs might address as scum or chavs, to borrow the modern vernacular   Initially, the capite censi and the proletarii were thought of as interchangeable but as time went on, the proles were differentiated on the grounds of having at least some property to speak of.  In a modern context, an example of this might be those who bought their council houses in the 80s and joined the property owning classes, while the very poorest continued to be unable even to achieve that.   At the top of the pile, of course, were the so-called cream of Roman society, the patricii (patricians). Today, the cream are instantly recognizable as being those who are, rich,  thick and float near the top.

So for Andrew Mitchell to call the policeman he insulted a “fucking pleb”* is interesting for a number of reasons. The first is because his own background is very much a patrician one.  He’s the son of a Conservative MP and was educated at Rugby and Cambridge, before going to work for an investment bank. The second is that the word is loaded with class connotation even now, and this a not a good time for the issue of class to percolate through what is already perceived to be a hugely patrician government.

Ever since David Cameron became Prime Minister he has had to grapple with criticism of his background and social class. To be sure, one has no control over the school one is sent to; schooling is largely a decision made by ones’ parents. however, one’s choices at 18 are another matter. And Cameron’s progress through Oxford and the Bullingdon club, along the with many chums who seemed to have followed him up the political ladder are rather more difficult to brush off. There is the feeling amongst many, and rather well articulated by Marcus Brigsstocke, that one of the principal issues with the coalition is a fundamental lack of empathy, nor yet a desire to even try to gain one.  The old lie of “We’re All In It Together” seems to have bitten the dust long ago, but there is an inescapable sense that the Coalition is not best serving the interests of all of our country’s people, or at the very least looking out more for the interests of some in particular.  Nick Clegg is little different, and in spite of all the attempts to remodel his image, it is looking increasingly as if his days are numbered.

But this patrician attitudes percolates even further: Michael Gove seems to think that his own limited knowledge and experience as a journalist makes him eminently qualified to dismantle the education system and recreate it in the image of a 70s prep school. You’d hope for less caning and sodomy, obviously.

So Mitchell is only one of a number of government ministers whose attitude seems to be, “shut up and do as you’re told. “, and that those not in his exalted position are little more than minions and common peasantry. Unfortunately, his jibe is not only inaccurate, but also insulting to an increasingly  much more mobilised and angry group: the middle classes.  These are the same middle classes the coalition needs to keep on board if they are to have any chance of carrying on after 2015.  Indeed, the Lib Dem conference this week has seen evidence that Clegg’s much trumpeted (by Clegg anyway) £10000 lower limit on tax has done little for the working poor, mostly benefitting the very wealthiest most of all.

What Andrew Mitchell has done is the most appalling crime of all in the eyes of most of his party colleagues: he has dared to articulate the attitude that many of them have tried so hard to hide under the Cameron PR-modelling of the Conservatives: know your place and shut up. Unfortunately for them, too many are not really prepared to do that any more.

* Mitchell clearly denies doing so, though he refuses to say what he actually said, and the policeman’s notebook is fairly clear on the matter. I know who I believe more.


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