Let’s play Plebgate. You’re the police and I’m the government chief whip. “I thought you lot were fucking meant to help us,” I say when you refuse to open the main gates from Downing Street to Whitehall – gates you routinely open on other days – forcing me to trundle my bike a further 15 feet. I think of Bradley Wiggins and all he has done to sacralise the cyclist. Isn’t this an insult to him, too? “Fucking plebs!” I say.
Or at least that’s what I’m said to have said. I find it hard to remember when I’m hot and angry what words came out of my mouth, but I accept responsibility for one “fucking”, for which I apologise, though I venture to suggest it’s not the worst language you, as policemen, will have heard – or used, come to that, as for example after a hard day on the beat when you come home and find your wife and maidservant sitting on the leatherette couch watching The X Factor, eating Ladurée macaroons and your tea not even in the fucking oven. Passers-by, you tell me, recoil in horror from the language, which must mean they are either on day-release from a monastery, or haven’t heard a stand-up comedian for the past 20 years. And if it’s the fact that the swearer is a toff wearing bicycle clips that shocks them, then they obviously haven’t watched a single episode of The Thick of It either. Unless it isn’t the word “fucking” they find shocking but the word “plebs”. Though why I can’t call someone a “fucking pleb” if a “fucking pleb” is what he is, I’m fucked if I know.
That said, the more I think about it (we’re still playing Plebgate and I’m still Andrew Mitchell), the more convinced I am that “plebs” wasn’t my word at all but was dredged out of the teeming deep of your collective unconscious (you’re still the police), because that’s how you imagine we Tories see you. In this, your ascription of plebomania to me bears a close affinity to George Monbiot’s initially confident misascription of paedophilia to Lord McAlpine. “Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable” is the objectionable little motto that heads Monbiot’s blog, and the logic of his costly mistake was that one can never think too harshly of anyone on the right of politics who also happens to be filthy rich. Plus, I accept, I don’t come across as a very nice person.
Myself – I am back now, reader, as your columnist – I view this episode, whatever the truth of it, as another nail in the coffin of the public’s right to be rude when rudeness is, or even when it isn’t, the appropriate response. Of all our human rights, is not the right to be offensive among the most sacrosanct? I have never, on my own account, let me say, been rude to a policeman, a) because I am sympathetic to the stresses the police are under, and b) because it isn’t smart to rub the law up the wrong way. But that the police should, philosophically speaking, be granted immunity from anger and bad language, I cannot accept. And that goes for everybody, from a plumber to a pope. Manners are a fine thing, and restraint is a virtue, but in a rough and tumble world, where we are all on edge, we must agree sometimes to be on the receiving end of someone’s temper, so long as it’s words and not weapons that are employed against us.
“Then I’ll sue the fuckers,” I proclaimed with majestic ineffectiveness recently, after a railway employee told me there was no way I was going to be given money for a taxi from Preston to Manchester even though the train I’d been travelling in from Edinburgh had broken down, every train sent to replace it was full, and I was late for an appointment. He should have laughed at me. “You fucking sue away,” he should have said. But instead he went into shrinking seminarian mode. “There’s no reason to use bad language,” he said. In fact, there was every reason to use bad language, but I nonetheless took the trouble to explain that I wasn’t directing it at him. He wasn’t the fucker, the train company was. That mollified him not a jot. Whether or not he was the intended object of the bad language, bad language had been used in his presence and therefore constituted a discourtesy of the sort every employee of every shit corporation in the country has been educated to believe he has a right not to be subjected to.
A sociologist of interpersonal relations in the workplace would no doubt be able to tell me how and when this unionisation of sensitivity came about. I suspect it’s an offshoot of anti-harassment legislation. “We aim to treat our customers with respect,” we read on notices on train stations, on buses, in banks, by the tills of mobile phone companies, etc, “and expect the same respect to be shown to our staff. Any discourtesy or rudeness will result in...” Well, losing your job as government chief whip for starters. But if it really is a quid pro quo of civility these non-providers of service on our high streets are looking for, then they are lucky to get away with nothing worse than being sworn at. Where unhelpfulness, officiousness, lack of sympathy and all-round obstructiveness are the norm, verbal aggression is an understandable and, in some instances, necessary response.
Men, proud men, dressed in a little brief authority, push us from pillar to post. And those are just the ones we see. Mainly we are frustrated by invisible agencies hiding behind machines, phones that are never picked up, call centres, the internet. Is it any surprise that the anger we feel towards those we cannot get at should be vented on those we can? Rage is our right. Just open the fucking gates. And fix my fucking mobile.Reuse content