Politicians, police and the IPCC: 'Plebgate' has shown the delusions of deference

Officers claimed that Andrew Mitchell used the term 'pleb' as they tried to stop him wheeling his bike through Downing Street's gates. He denied it. So why did everyone believe them over him?
  • @archiebland

Nothing is so unedifying as a scandal over a triviality. But in the depressing saga of Andrew Mitchell's bicycle, maybe the most depressing element of all was how unsurprising it was. Plebgate, as we learnt to call it, seems to be very far from the most serious example of that institution's apparent tendency to self-interest. We should have seen it coming.

The former chief whip, at least, had the wherewithal to dispute the official narrative. As others have pointed out last week, it is quite chilling to think of the invisible cases of those who were unable to mount the same sort of defence. And it's a shame that, just as the privations of prison suddenly became interesting when Vicky Pryce and Chris Huhne were the ones locked up, the possibility that the police might not always be paragons of virtue only draws serious attention when it's a cabinet minister on the receiving end.

Even if we confine ourselves to those scandals we know all about, after all, there is no shortage of examples. Hillsborough, Tomlinson, De Menezes, or the undercover officers who duped political activists into forming relationships with them: none of these examples is in itself a reason to be suspicious of the average bobby on the beat. But, taken together, you would think they would make us at least a little sceptical.

And yet most of us believed the police account. I know I did. I'm quite ashamed of it. In fact, I might have been more sceptical of the same allegation had it been made against an ordinary person. But a minister being stupid enough to use the word "pleb"? Besides, we are trained to think badly of politicians now, dwelling as they do in their ivory towers, with duck houses in their moats. The police, on the other hand, are the good guys. Well, Andrew Mitchell didn't deserve that sort of cynicism. The question is did the police deserve that much credit?

Why did we give it to them in the first place? Why is it that the police always somehow regain our trust? Just now, this feels like a watershed moment in our relationship with them: there have been calls for a royal commission, and the critics have come from well outside the range of what we might call the usual suspects. But there have been such moments in the past. If history is any guide, we will soon revert to granting them the benefit of the doubt.

This may simply be because we're comfortable seeing things this way. According to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the conversation between Mitchell and the three Police Federation representatives that was supposed to clear the air was instead misrepresented. And, unbelievably, despite all that evidence, despite a transcript of Mitchell's talks with police officers and the apparently contradictory briefing to the press just minutes later, a drawn-out investigation by West Mercia Police found that the officers in question didn't have a case to answer. Thank goodness, this time, for the IPCC, which is now calling for a misconduct panel to investigate whether a false account of the meeting was given deliberately, as an attempt to discredit Mitchell.

Some will see this as the swift closing of ranks to avoid trouble. There have been plenty of occasions in the past, after all, when officers facing grave allegations have taken a conveniently early retirement. But more worrying still is the possibility that those investigating and those being investigated alike really do take the view that they didn't do anything wrong. There is a toxic scenario that combines the left's fear of the state with the right's disgust at militant unions; it's Arthur Scargill with a baton. If it reflects a view that has any sort of traction within the police force as a whole, it is hard to see how it can effectively be combated from within. Only natural, then, that we should prefer to discount this authoritarian possibility. It is simply too awful to contemplate.

More than anything, though, the attitude that allowed this to happen can be summarised by one word: deference. The received wisdom on deference is that it is in decline – that the automatic respect which we once showed to politicians and the aristocracy has waned, and a good thing, too. Actually, though, as cases such as this reveal, it has simply been transferred to a new group of beneficiaries. Today, politicians and business people and the very rich are looked down upon; now it's nurses and members of the armed services and, yes, the police who receive our uncritical adulation. (Social workers are, for some unknown reason, exempt.) This is presumably supposed to make up for how poorly many of them are paid.

I guess this is progress of a sort. At least those whom we dare not criticise now have done something selfless to earn it. But the biggest problem with deference as a guiding principle to social interaction was never that those to whom we genuflected didn't merit it, even if they didn't; it was that obsequiousness dulled our critical faculties, made us unable to think properly about the rights and wrongs of their behaviour.

So it is with Plebgate. After all, there are special rules about swearing at the police, as if it is somehow ruder than swearing at anyone else. Imagine, for a moment, that it had been a footballer to whom Andrew Mitchell had used the word "f******", and who had then claimed that he had been called a "pleb". Mitchell would have been in trouble, certainly, but he would also have felt able to defend himself vigorously, and the media would have trodden much more carefully in its treatment of the story: one of the biggest impediments the minister faced was the unstated assumption in the press that he was bang to rights, which made everything he said seem shifty.

To see this played out, consult the transcript of Mitchell's meeting with the Police Federation. His obsequiousness is embarrassing even to read. His starting assumption is: the police cannot do wrong. He builds it upon his experience of another of the unimpeachable professions. "I was a soldier, I know what the guys get up to and I am full of the profoundest respect," he says. "I've given away awards … I know about the police, I have a huge respect for the police … if you talk to any of the police in Sutton Coldfield, they will tell you that I am a tremendous supporter … so the only point I am making is for me to be caught on the wrong side [the wrong side, Andrew?] of an issue like this is really atypical.

"This is absolutely not me," he goes on, as if denying the police version of events was a moment of madness he only wished he could take back. "If you ask the police here in Birmingham and... in Sutton Coldfield … they will tell you that I am not like that, Andrew Mitchell is the strongest defender of the police you could find anywhere." And why, he is asked, did he not contradict the police account right away? Simple. "I will not, as a supporter of the police for 26 years, be put in a position of suggesting an officer is not telling the truth."

There is the essential point: he will not criticise the police because to suggest that the police might be wrong, even after all the evidence that sometimes they are, even if you know that you did not do what they are saying that you did, is beyond the pale. You would have to say that this is pretty feeble on the minister's part, and perhaps one can understand others' credulity when even the man himself is reluctant to dispute it.

The irony, of course, is that in the end this approach does these "sacred cow" institutions as much harm as it does the rest of us. If we were able to engage critically a little earlier, such nuclear calamities would be significantly less likely to unfold; they are the product of an overweening confidence built upon an assumption of total untouchability. That breeds a sense that the requirements of the institutions are more important than the requirements of the citizens they are supposed to serve – and that leads to moments of crashing revelation if we discover that, sometimes, they may not be on our side.

Andrew Mitchell's foul-mouthed rebuke to the officer on duty that sparked this whole sorry business may well turn out to be exactly right. "I thought," he said bitterly, "that you guys were supposed to f****** help us."