Many on the right are puzzled as to why the “plebs” remark allegedly
delivered by Andrew Mitchell
to the police guarding Downing Street has
had such traction with the press. I do not think the Tory chief whip
should resign – we all lose our temper and say things we should not –
but the incident nonetheless matters and resonates because of what it
says about modern Britain.
The barb suggests that the
Conservative party remains bound by class and privilege, cut off from
the concerns of ordinary, decent people. There is some truth in this but
that is not why it resonates. Boris Johnson is, if anything, more
privileged than Mr Mitchell – yet the mayor of London revels in it and
is one of the most popular politicians in the country.
is liked because he is seen to represent an older class position that
knew its privileges but understood its duties, too. Mr Mitchell’s
alleged remark reverberates as it speaks to new lines of class and forms
of privilege; an elite that cares not a damn for those below it and
considers itself beyond the normal order that governs society. Just as
Mitt Romney’s dismissal of 47 per cent of American voters as entitlement
junkies making no contribution to the national good may well define and
defeat his campaign, so senior Tories fear the “plebs” remark will also
come to define and defeat them.
The trouble is that
“47-per-centers” and “plebs” do define the modern order and do capture
current reality. Much of this results unbeknown to themselves from
centre right economics in both the US and the UK. Conservatives in both
countries now represent vested over public interest, big business over
small, international over national capital. They typify and defend an
economic system that serves the minority rather than the majority.
on both sides of the Atlantic are narrowing opportunity, concentrating
wealth and protecting monopoly interests. The centre right has almost
ceased to do majority politics. It defines national interest in terms of
the already powerful and increasingly abandons the middle and lower
classes to their fate. They are persuaded by past fictions that what is
in the interest of the winners percolates to those below them. In short,
conservatives are unknowingly creating an oligarchy, one which will
make us all plebs. By following the interests of a vested minority,
conservatives may not win a general election for years. Of course, this
is not conservative intention or wish but the rhetoric should not
conceal the reality.
UK official data show that in 2010 the top
10 per cent of households had income four to eight times larger than the
bottom 10 per cent of households, but assets 100 times larger. In the
same year, an OECD survey found that the UK and the US came first and
third in social immobility. The US, with 24.8 per cent, and the UK,
with, 20.6 per cent have the highest share of low-paid employees in
Traditionally, the right has viewed education as
the path to mobility but in the US education attainment has stagnated
since 1975. The cost of attending a public, in-state college rose 268
per cent from 1981 to 2011. In the UK, college attendance is down 10 per
cent after the introduction of tuition fees.
risk appearing indifferent to those left behind. The west used to have a
self-sacrificing elite that believed in common values where everyone
was important and had a role to play. Now we have a self-serving echelon
that believes in nothing except itself and the results are all around
us. Talk of plebs disturbs us not because it comes from our past but
because it captures our present and increasingly describes our future.
asked a senior army officer if the phrase could have come from Mr
Mitchell’s military background. He said absolutely not. He recounted
that when a government minister visited his regiment and asked how the
“squaddies” were, the assembled officer corps cringed and angrily
responded that they were highly trained soldiers, not squaddies. If the
remark came from Mr Mitchell’s background, he opined, it was that of
banking, not soldiering. The new elite speaks like this, not the old.
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