Stay Classy: Britain’s Newest Scandal Is All About The Country’s Oldest Obsession

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Some years just don’t know when they’re over and 2012 seems determined to squeeze one more scandal out of Britain’s beleaguered establishment. Like #hackgate, the saga that last year led Rupert Murdoch to close down his Sunday tabloid News of the World, or #duckgate, the revelations in 2009 that some MPs and peers padded their parliamentary expenses, the latest tale involves politicians, the police and the press, and has its own hashtag too: #plebgate. Arrests have been made and at least one high profile career has careered into the ditch of tabloid infamy. And #plebgate shares another key feature with earlier imbroglios. Look past the details of who did or said what to whom and, just like Downton Abbey, this is really a drama about class. Tensions between different social strata continue to underpin many of the dysfunctions in British life.

The undisputed facts of the latest bout of class war—and there are not many—can be summarized thus: on the evening of Sept. 19, a senior Conservative politician, Andrew Mitchell, left his office in London‘s Downing Street, the fortified enclave of government offices that is also home to Prime Minister David Cameron and his family. Earlier the same month, Cameron had reshuffled his Cabinet, installing Mitchell as the Tories’ top enforcer of party discipline, a position that rejoices in the title “Chief Whip.” Mitchell, hurrying to attend a speaking engagement, mounted his bicycle and rode to the gates that barricade Downing Street from the busy thoroughfare called Whitehall. The police officers on duty—members of the Diplomatic Protection Group that guards government personnel and buildings—refused to open the road gate to Mitchell, requiring him instead dismount and wheel his bike through the pedestrian gate.

By the politician’s own account—the fullest public version appeared in a Dec. 23 article by Mitchell in Murdoch’s Sunday Times—he argued with the officers:

Me: “Please open the gates.”

Police: “No. Please get off your bike and leave by the pedestrian exit.”

Me: “Please open the gates, I am the Chief Whip. I work here at number 9.”

Police: “No, you have to get off your bike and wheel it out.”

Me: “Look, I have already been in and out several times today. Please open the gates.”

Police: “No.”

With that I complied with the policeman’s request and wheeled my bike across the pavement and out through the pedestrian entrance. As I did so, I muttered—though not directly at him—”I thought you guys were supposed to f—ing help us.” To which the policeman responded: “If you swear at me, I will arrest you.” Whereupon I cycled off. As I left, I think I said that I would pursue the matter further the next day.

Such an incident might well have merited a mention in a gossip column, cementing Mitchell’s reputation for abrasiveness. His appointment as Chief Whip had provoked some amusement in Westminster circles; it seemed an oddly appropriate role for a man who had allegedly acquired the nickname “Thrasher” during his time as a pupil at the elite private school Rugby. (Mitchell repudiated the nickname in an interview with Total Politics magazine but admitted that as a prefect he had been “a stern disciplinarian.”) What transformed the matter from a minor mishap to a major headache—for Mitchell and the police—were newspaper reports casting quite a different complexion on events.

A Sept. 22 front page story in Murdoch’s Sun newspaper, a tabloid that has expanded to publish seven days a week to fill the gap left by its dear departed stablemate News of the World, alleged Mitchell cursed at the police. This version of the events appeared to be backed by a police log leaked to the Daily Telegraph and by a letter of complaint emailed to Mitchell’s deputy in the Whips’ Office, John Randall. (Full of spelling mistakes and malapropisms, the letter complained, surreally, “about the absolutely digesting behavior” of Mitchell.) In each of these versions, it was Mitchell’s alleged use of a four-letter word that proved especially damaging. “Best you learn your f—ing place,” he allegedly said. “You don’t run this f—ing government. You’re f—ing plebs.”

Effing and blinding isn’t regarded as the worst of crimes in foul-mouthed Britain. But calling someone a “pleb,” a plebeian, a commoner, would be deeply insulting. If the epithet dropped from the curled lip of a wealthy, privately educated Cabinet minister, a member of the toffiest Tory front bench in many a year, at the height of austerity, that would be extraordinarily offensive. If its target was an honest copper, protecting the security of the nation, the explosive charge of the term would increase exponentially. Mitchell denies ever using the word or directing abuse at officers. Nevertheless, amid protests from the police, some of whom took to wearing “PC Pleb” T-shirts,Mitchell resigned on Oct. 19.

There the matter might have rested, but for an investigation by Channel 4 News and the broadcaster’s documentary series Dispatches. The item shown on Dec. 18 revealed previously unseen CCTV footage from Downing Street of the alleged altercation between Mitchell and the police. “I believe [the images] show pretty clearly that there was no such angry conversation. There is no sign of any loss of temper or bodily aggression, and the scene takes only 16 seconds—hardly time for such a full-on rant,” wrote Mitchell in his Sunday Times piece. He adds: “Both the police log and the email [to Deputy Chief Whip Randall] also claimed that members of the public standing on the pavement outside Downing Street were visibly shocked by my bad language. But a CCTV camera covering that stretch of pavement shows no members of the public in front of the gates and only one person walking past.”

The allegation in the report that raised the most serious questions was that the email to Randall, purporting to come from a member of the public who had witnessed the confrontation, may have been sent by a serving police officer who was not present when the incident took place. Police have arrested an officer and another man in connection with the events and opened an investigation that the head of Scotland Yard, Bernard Hogan-Howe, pledged would ensure “a ruthless search for the truth.”

“Plebgate” comes down to the word of an MP against that of a Police Officer, so it’s difficult to know who not to believe,” quipped the British comedian Frankie Boyle on Twitter before these latest developments. As the saying goes, you have to laugh or you’d cry. The U.K.’s serial scandals have shredded trust in at least three of the core institutions of public life. The Leveson Inquiry, the 11-month-long public investigation into the hacking scandal that issued its recommendations on press regulation in November, focused most intently on the press, and especially Murdoch’s newspapers, and the organization’s influence on leading politicians including Cameron. But relations between some sections of the press and the police have been closer still, and the slowness of the police to uncover the scope of the hacking allegations remains largely unexplored.

When that reckoning comes, no analysis will be complete without understanding the role the British class system plays in the interactions between British institutions. One central reason that Cameron and his upper-crust colleagues courted Murdoch’s tabloids, even to the extent of hiring former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as Downing Street’s Director of Communications, was because they saw the tabloids as representatives of, and conduits to, the broader mass of middle- and working-class voters. In 2008, Coulson complained to me about the headline on TIME’s cover profile of Cameron — “Class Act” — arguing the phrase was misleading because class no longer played a significant role in modern Britain. If Coulson had been right, there would be less of an instinctive kinship between rank-and-file police officers and tabloids and less animus between them and the privileged elites clogging the corridors of Westminster. If Coulson had been right, the posher branch of the security services, MI6, would communicate more effectively with MI5, drawn from a wider pool. If Coulson had been right, the high-flown Royal Air Force would work more smoothly with the earthbound army.

If Coulson had been right, the allegation that Mitchell deployed the word “pleb” might not have catapulted the politician from his position as Chief Whip. As investigators toil to establish the facts about the incident and its aftermath, Britain’s entrenched class system bears more than a measure of guilt for the divisions roiling its establishment.