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Monday, September 24, 2012 

Andrew Mitchell and me.

It turns out, against all the odds, that I have something in common with Andrew Mitchell. Both of us have sworn at police officers and thanks to the discretion of the police, not been arrested.

The circumstances of my altercation were though ever so slightly different. While Mitchell lost his rag after the police refused to open the main Downing Street gates to let him through on his bike, I was stopped on suspicion of being in the process of breaking and entering. I used to work at a shop on a main side street, and tasked with opening it one day, I naturally overslept. Rushing to get there on time, I also succeeded in forgetting to pick up the keys. Luckily, the shop had a pair of battered old wooden delivery doors which when suitably forced opened just enough for you to get the bolts out of the ground. Both myself and the owners had used this method before when locked out, or when the keys had done a vanishing act.

While trying to force the doors open, at the same time as reassuring anyone walking past that it wasn't what it may have looked like, I noticed that a police van had gone past on the junction at the bottom of the road. Hoping against hope that they wouldn't be coming back the other way, I continued my attempts, only for around three minutes later the van to come haring round the corner at the top of the street, with three officers swiftly leaping out. Someone had obviously stopped them and said there was some nutter trying break into a shop round the corner. Even though I'd taken my top off and left it on the ground and didn't try to run as soon as they approached, they refused to accept that I was anything to do with the shop, even after the owner of the shop next door came out and told them I worked there. "You two could be in this together for all I know," the officer who had took charge told me. It was then I informed him that he could go forth and multiply, although I did add a conciliatory "mate" on the end of my statement.

Luckily, he didn't arrest me there and then but did inform me I'd be nicked if I said anything else along those lines, and proceeded to search me. Finding nothing, and agreeing to ring my boss, who backed my version of events (after they checked the van parked across the road belonging to him was his), they finally decided I'd been telling the truth all along. I then apologised, he graciously accepted it, and off they went. A minute later and the doors had been pushed back far enough for me to get in. Apart from the embarrassment at my stupidity on all counts, that was that.

By rights, they could have arrested me even before I'd swore. Broad daylight or not, and in full sight of everyone walking down the street, it was possible I could have been breaking in to steal, even though forcing the doors had taken me a good five minutes or more and I'd taken my top off in the process. They were just doing their job. Yes, they could have taken at face value the account of the shop owner next door and not given such a specious reason for not believing him, but still. They could well have come across burglars drugged up or idiotic enough to be doing exactly what I was.

I do then have more than a sliver of sympathy for Mitchell.  We are surely all entitled on occasion to lose our temper, or get so exasperated for whatever reason that we let fly, even if it's at a police officer.  As long as we then apologise and ensure that it hasn't been taken as a personal affront, that should be the end of it.  In Mitchell's case, regardless of whether or not he did call the police who blocked him either plebs or morons, the officer he directed his frustration at has accepted his apology.  That ought to have sorted it.

Except, of course, this is the first government since the days of Macmillan to be so dominated by both millionaires and the privately educated.  Yes, if any minister of any recent government had called police officers "plebs" then there'd be uproar, but that it's this one, when the police are already up in arms over the Winsor report and when it was the day after the shooting dead of the two officers in Manchester, you might just have imagined that Mitchell wouldn't have been such a boor.  As is so often the case, it seems that someone who's reportedly a stickler for protocol and appearance in his office, asking for civil servants to wear ties when they're around him, expects respect and yet fails to always give it in return.  Add in how Mitchell initially denied he had swore at all, and it wouldn't have been a surprise if David Cameron had asked for his resignation.

That he hasn't is as much down to the Police Federation's role as anything else.  Their representative's appearance on Newsnight on Friday, when he claimed that David Cameron's words on the deaths of the officers in Manchester were hollow wasn't just over the top, it must have concentrated minds in Downing Street.  Why else would Cameron have accepted Mitchell's account, when the police from the diplomatic protection service had no reason whatsoever to lie about what happened?  "Pleb" is hardly a common insult, and it's difficult to see what else they could have mistaken it for, unless "Clegg" on its own is now a epithet amongst Tories.

This said, and as much as the opposition has to, err, oppose, the call for an investigation into it from Labour is utterly ridiculous and a waste of time.  If the police are to be believed, then the Tories have just confirmed the very worst that is thought of them, and that's going to be a difficult thing to shake.  Going after Mitchell isn't going to make any difference.  If on the other hand you take the minister's side, that it was just an aggravation at the end of a very long day, then Labour also aren't going to achieve anything.  Indeed, if you're among the former, then it just enhances the belief that this government is helmed by condescending posh boys who think the lower orders, including the police, should know their place.  And Labour can't really ask for much more than that.

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