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Modern Conservatives Make Plebs of Us All

ResPublica Director Phillip Blond writes for Financial Times

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.

Mr Johnson 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.

Conservatives 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 their workforce.

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.

Now conservatives 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.

I 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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Date Published
25 September 2012

About The Authors

Phillip Blond

Phillip is an internationally recognised political thinker and social and economic commentator. He bridges the gap bet...