Plebs, public school boys and politics: class war breaks out in Court 13

The Andrew Mitchell libel trial shows how far Britain’s divided society has come – and how much further it has to go

Donald Macintyre
Friday 21 November 2014 19:56
Andrew Mitchell, accompanied by his wife Sharon, arrives at the Royal Courts of Justice in London this week (AP)
Andrew Mitchell, accompanied by his wife Sharon, arrives at the Royal Courts of Justice in London this week (AP)

Only in England. Maybe it’s because so much of Andrew Mitchell’s libel case against The Sun turns on whether he used the socially loaded term “pleb” about the police on that fateful evening at the Downing Street gate in September 2012, that it’s hard to escape the class overtones of the hearing in the crowded, oak panelled intimacy of Court 13.

Separated only by three more junior members of their legal teams, Mitchell and PC Toby Rowlands, who is counter-suing Mitchell for saying the constable fabricated his version of the incident, both sit opposite Mr Justice Mitting, intently observing the witnesses in the box. Audio-less CCTV clips on a screen to their left show who moved where in Downing Street on that otherwise peaceful evening.

So relatively small is the courtroom that the supporters of each side could speak to each other without raising their voices, if they chose to – which they don’t. Mitchell’s wife Sharon, a doctor, and Tory MPs including Richard Ottaway and David Davis sit yards from stern-faced officers of the Police Federation, which is funding PC Rowlands’ suit.

But the proximity cannot disguise the gulf in class which permeates the proceedings, albeit in ways that cross the boundaries between plaintiff and defendant. Two of the three QCs, James Price, representing Mitchell, and Desmond Browne, representing PC Rowland, went to Eton (the younger top counsel, Gavin Millar, acting for The Sun, didn’t). At times the chasm between Price’s patrician drawl and Browne’s more amiably plummy tones, on the one hand, and on the other, the more or less discernible London accents and idiom of most former and serving police officers who testified yesterday, seems as wide as it might have been a century ago.

On Thursday Price cross-examined Gillian Weatherley, the policewoman who first declined to allow Mitchell (Rugby and Cambridge) through the main gates on his bicycle and who was later sacked after admitting that she had sent a copy of Rowland’s emailed version of events to PC James Glanville. She insisted from the witness box that she was unaware that Glanville was going to pass it on to The Sun. Price challenged Weatherley’s testimony that Rowlands had, shortly after the incident, told her, “He’s [Mitchell] just called us fucking plebs, we should know our fucking place”, and suggested that they had instead later colluded to produce this version. “You’re wrong,” she answered.

When, during a short break, the court usher exchanged, as she bustled round the courtroom, a few harmlessly superficial words with Weatherley, waiting alone in the witness box for the hearing to resume, you couldn’t help feeling that they were linked, certainly not by any view of the proceedings, but by class as well as gender.

Yesterday Downing Street police officer Gareth Bonds told the court how he was embarrassed by the childish and overbearing behaviour Mitchell exhibited that night, but he said the MP did not swear at them. He said Mitchell reacted after being told he couldn’t cycle out of the gates.

“Mr Mitchell then raised his voice and stated that he was the Government Chief Whip and that he wanted to leave via the front vehicle gates. He was politely told to use the gate at the side.

“He again raised his voice and repeated the same phrase, ‘I’m the Government Chief Whip. I want to leave through these gates’. He also stated that he had been let out of the gates on previous occasions. He was raising his voice as though that would work.”

On Monday Mitchell told Mr Justice Mitting: “I would never call a policeman a pleb, let alone a fucking pleb.” (Getty)

The judge is expected to rule next Friday on the preliminary issue of the meaning of the words complained of and whether they are true. But one word in particular appears to go to the case’s heart.

Mitchell again admitted muttering as he was refused passage through the main vehicle gates: “I thought you lot were supposed to fucking help us,” but adamantly denied the “plebs” gibe. Indeed, it’s mainly Mitchell’s supporters rather than the police who imply that the “p” word is much worse than the “f” word.

Mitchell himself told Mr Justice Mitting (Downside and Cambridge) on Monday: “I would never call a policeman a pleb, let alone a fucking pleb.”

In his written character testimonial for Mitchell the commentator Matthew D’Ancona said: “The claim that a senior member of the Coalition had used the word ‘plebs’ in any context would have been damaging. The allegation that it had been used in anger to describe the police was positively toxic.” Which, in effect, was why D’Ancona “simply could not imagine him using such a disgusting and discourteous word”. It would have been, he added, “at variance with all he believes about social decency and equality of worth”.

The Plebgate scandal erupted over an exchange between Mitchell and a policeman at Downing Street gate in September 2012

Another testimonial was furnished by Richard Robinson, a sometime Labour voter who had decorated Mitchell’s Nottingham house in 1998 and said the MP had – unusually in Robinson’s experience – thrown a barbecue for all those who had worked on the house. “I had no difficulty in telling him that I believe he would not have used the word ‘pleb’ to anyone.”

In his own evidence PC Rowlands said the word – which he claimed not to know at the time – was an “irrelevance” and he was more concerned about the swearing. And Ben Mills, who was the officers’ base sergeant on the night, insisted on Thursday: ”I don’t think it’s a word that would particularly perturb most police officers. It certainly doesn’t perturb me.”

The deployment of his decorator suggests that Mitchell is currently sensitive to charges that his behaviour could be what the French (having, unlike the British, had a revolution within the past 250 years ) would call “de haut en bas”. But that in turn rather underlines how far we remain from realising John Major’s two-decades-old dream of creating a “classless society”.

Even Sir John was prone to the odd outburst of swearing, infamously once describing Eurosceptics as “bastards”. It seems incredible to think that a multimillion-pound libel case could revolve in large part on whether or not a Latin word more than two millennia old and meaning “the common people” was “toxically” misused by a British Cabinet minister one sunny September evening.