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U.K.'s Simmering Class Tensions Roil Over 'Plebe' Flap

Sep 29, 2012
Originally published on September 30, 2012 11:21 am

A political scandal in the United Kingdom involving a bicycle, a police officer and a bad-tempered Cabinet minister has laid bare lingering tensions over the British class system.

The controversy has provided ammunition to those who charge the Conservative Party-led government is out of touch with ordinary Britons.

Earlier this month, one of the policemen guarding the prime ministerial complex at Downing Street told an obscure British Cabinet minister, Chief Conservative Whip Andrew Mitchell, that he could not ride his bicycle out the main gate. Mitchell was told to walk it through the narrower pedestrian gate instead.

All involved agree on what happened next: Mitchell lost his temper.

But according to the policeman, Mitchell allegedly and repeatedly used the F-word in the altercation that followed. Even worse, in the eyes of many Britons, the minister allegedly called the nearby officers "plebes" — from the Latin plebeian, meaning "commoner."

It's the kind of slang associated in Britain with over-bred, old Etonians gazing sneeringly down at "the little people."

Mitchell has apologized, and also noted that he "didn't show the police the respect I should have done." But the minister has also taken issue with the officer's allegation that he used the word "plebe."

"I'm very clear about what I've said and what I didn't say," Mitchell told the press. "And I want to make it absolutely clear that I did not use the words that were attributed to me."

Mitchell's fellow Conservative, Prime Minister David Cameron, has also weighed in on the controversy.

"What Andrew Mitchell said and what he did was not appropriate," Cameron said last week. "It was wrong. And it's right that he's apologized. He's apologized to me and, much more importantly, he's apologized thoroughly to the police and that needs to be done."

Ben Brogan of the Daily Telegraph says Cameron's statement is prime ministerial damage containment. He says Cameron has worked to modernize the image — if not always the reality — of the Conservative Party.

"Given that David Cameron has spent so long trying to detoxify the Tory brand and get away from this idea that it is somehow the 'nasty party,' this behavior would seem to reinforce that perception," he says.

No audio recordings of the encounter have surfaced. But classics scholar Edith Hall says she thinks Mitchell is guilty based precisely on the very class system whose simmering, throbbing nerves this controversy has exposed.

"One of the reasons I'm convinced he did use that word is, it's just not the sort of thing a policeman would invent," Hall says.

The Police Federation of England and Wales has called for Mitchell to be fired. But his job seems safe, for now.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Britons have been bemused by a political scandal involving a bicycle, a bobby and a bad-tempered cabinet minister. The scandal has triggered outrage and some charge that the country's conservative-led government is out of touch with ordinary Britons. Vicki Barker has more from London.

VICKI BARBER, BYLINE: A week ago Wednesday, one of the policemen guarding the prime ministerial complex at Downing Street told an obscure British cabinet minister named Andrew Mitchell he couldn't ride his bicycle out the main gate, but had to walk it through the narrower pedestrian gate instead. Mitchell lost his temper. That much everyone's agreed on. But according to the policeman, not only did Mitchell allegedly and repeatedly use the F-word, worse, in many eyes, he allegedly called the nearby officers plebes.

ANDREW MITCHELL: Good morning. Well, I want, first of all, to reiterate the apology I made last week.

BARBER: One week later, Mitchell was still apologizing while also taking issue with the bobby's account.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Did you call them plebe?

MITCHELL: I'm very clear about what I've said and what I didn't say, and I want to make it absolutely clear that I did not use the words that were attributed to me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Did you swear?

MITCHELL: I'm now going to go in and get on with my work.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Did you swear at them?

MITCHELL: Thank you very much, indeed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Did you swear at them?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: But what did you say, Mr. Minister?

BARBER: Plebe - from the Latin plebian, meaning commoner, the kind of slang associated here with overbred old Etonians gazing sneeringly down at the little people. In point of fact, Mitchell went to Eton's rival school, Rugby. His fellow conservative, Prime Minister David Cameron, went to Eton and had this to say.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: What Andrew Mitchell said and what he did was not appropriate. It was wrong and it's right that he's apologized. He's obviously apologized to me but much more importantly, he's apologized thoroughly to the police, and that needs to be done.

BARBER: Prime ministerial damage containment, says Ben Brogan of the Daily Telegraph. He says Cameron's worked to modernize the image, if not always the reality of the Conservative, or Tory Party

BEN BROGAN: Given that David Cameron has spent so long trying to detoxify the Tory brand and get away from this idea that it is somehow the nasty party, this behavior would seem to reinforce that perception.

BARBER: No audio recordings of the encounter have surfaced. But classics scholar Edith Hall thinks Mitchell is guilty, based on the very British class system whose lingering, throbbing nerves have been exposed by this controversy.

EDITH HALL: One of the reasons I'm absolutely convinced that he did use that word is it's just not the sort of thing a policeman would invent.

BARBER: The Police Federation has called for Mitchell to be fired, but his job seems safe, for now. For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

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MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.