So Andrew Mitchell has resigned. I can understand the point that he has lost the trust of members of his party – a disastrous failing for an erstwhile bullying Chief Whip, and therefore has been rendered ineffective. But I'm not as exuberant about the resolution of this affair as many seem to be.
In the first place, this is so obviously another strike by the political hyenas who delight in picking off the apparently weakest straggling members of the Government pack. The sight of Milliband ranting and posturing before Mitchell in the House of Commons was quite extraordinary. Was he serious that Mitchell's own rant at the police was the most terrible thing that the Government have done. EVA!? Of course not. And nor is it the most important issue in British politics at the moment. But Mitchell's resignation removes one more first choice Minister from the Government benches. And with no danger of Milliband being forced to explain any of his own party's policies in the process.
But, secondly, the accusation that he called the police 'plebs'. OK, that has been blown up into some sort of class thing, as though only arrogant toffs use the term and therefore the entire Government is composed of arrogant toffs. But that's patently not true. The first bit isn't anyway; I've certainly used the word as an insult and not only to members of the lower classes either. Oh, come on, as insults go, this is pretty tame, isn't it. Is the suggestion that, had he used the word 'bastard' for example that somehow that wouldn't have been so bad and he could have stayed in his job? Wouldn't he have been implying that the entire police force was born out of wedlock. Hmmm, actually they probably were these days. Well, choose your own worst swear word then. Wouldn't that be more offensive? Had he not admitted using other foul language, I might even have suspected that he was using the term to avoid saying some expletive.
But, let's assume that he did use the word (he has consistently denied it) and that he meant that all policemen are common and that Ministers are superior to policemen. Well, actually it's true, isn't it? Oh, all right, maybe Ministers are not exactly aristocrats these days, but they are elected by the people to represent them. And members of the police force should surely not be offended to be called members of the general public. Today the term is maybe not used in this strict classical way, but it is usually used (I thought jocularly) to mean that the person concerned has behaved in an uncultured manner. Personally, I thought at the time that refusing to open the gate for a member of the Government on a bike because the rules only mention 'cars' is pretty uncultured. Of course Mitchell may well have meant to say that the entire police force is low-born and uneducated, whereas he and the rest of the Conservative Party were high-born and educated at private schools. I don't think this rings true. I think it much more likely that he was frustrated and irritated at his apparent humiliation by the police on the gate and lashed out. Had I found myself in those circumstances, I wonder what I would have said. Might I have used the word 'pleb'? I suppose I might. But I think (I give myself the benefit of the doubt here) that I might have chosen it because I thought it a more cutting jibe than 'Jobsworth', yet perhaps not as bad as the swear word you chose above. I don't know. Would I though have meant that I am born to rule? Or might I perhaps have intended to suggest that I am conducting the business of government and the job of the policeman on the gate is to open and close the gate as I go about my work, to support my work, not to hinder it? Who knows?
But there is another point about this. Why did the policeman refuse to open the gate for Mitchell? Was it really just because he was cycling or was it simply because he could refuse? And why are the police continuing to make such a fuss about the incident? Even after his resignation, the Police Federation statement included the comment, "He still hasn't provided a full explanation of his version of events compared with the police reports. It's a matter of honesty and integrity for us and it's quite right that he's gone." Honesty and integrity in the police force, eh. This hasn't been a good period for the police with evidence that police tampered with reports into the Hillsborough disaster to hide their guilt, with the conflicting reports of the police shooting of Mark Duggan, with the dereliction of duty involved in turning a blind eye to child sex grooming, and with a whole string of incidents where individual policemen behaved inappropriately and high-handedly towards members of the public, sometimes fatally.
I have a great deal of respect for the police. I am pretty sure I couldn't do their job. But I trust them to do it, to protect me and my property and my rights. But they are none the less ordinary members of society themselves – 'the police are the public and the public are the police', as Robert Peel put it. They have to work pretty hard, especially with their military style outfits and weapons (batons and tasers, which we incidentally are not allowed to carry in the streets), not to appear to lord it over you and me, not to look like our superiors, like prison guards or army officers. But there is a danger that they are beginning to act that way. Having to control demonstrations and often being reviled by demonstrators in the process must make their task the tougher. But they have to stick to it. They will gain more respect for good behaviour and conversely lose much for wrong-doing, for arrogance or for disrespecting members of the general public they are a part of.
The Government is currently considering a review of police pay and work conditions which is of much concern to police officers. I have no way of commenting on what the review should say or what it will recommend for the police, but most informed commentators seem to think that the organisation is long overdue for reform. It is understandable that individual police officers should feel strongly about changes to their pay and conditions and thus feel animosity to those that impose them. But again they must be careful not to lose their essential impartiality. The Mitchell affair looked suspiciously like a smoke-screen or maybe even a small act of retaliation.
Whatever, I'm not sure the police will have endeared themselves much to the Government. Forcing Mitchell to resign was a petty act that lacked any real merit. But it will have hurt the Prime Minister. I wonder whether creating that animosity was the best strategy, as the Government nears its decision on police reorganisation.