With American voters pondering the choice between a blueblood businessman and a self-described “mongrel” incumbent president, news from across the waves reminds us that class warfare is also alive and well in our mother country from colonial times.
The Associated Press reports Andrew Mitchell, a British Cabinet minister in Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative administration, had a minor brush with the law when police officers asked him to dismount his bicycle as he approached the prime minister’s residence on Downing Street in London. The verbal exchange that followed got him in bigger trouble, politically.
According to the British press, the minister bristled at the perceived affront from mere cops – bobbies, the Brits might call them. “Best you learn your (expletive) place,” Mitchell was quoted as retorting. “You don’t run this (expletive) government. You’re (expletive) plebs.”
That’s short for plebeians, a term coined by the ancient Romans to distinguish their humbler countrymen from upper-class patricians. Britain has a storied history of aristocratic rule, though the commoners have gotten in on more of the action lately, especially since those rebellious colonists across the Atlantic kicked up a spot of trouble back in 1776.
Mitchell and Cameron’s Conservative Party does run the government for the moment, although the Labour Party, like America’s Democrats, has raised a ruckus over cutbacks in welfare benefits and public-sector pensions.
Cameron, like U.S. multimillionaire Mitt Romney, has taken pains to portray himself and his party as representing the best interests of all social strata, so Mitchell’s temper tantrum raised some eyebrows. The Cabinet minister apologized for the incident but denied saying what the press said he said. That hit a nerve with the Metropolitan Police Federation, a union, which thought Mitchell was accusing its members of lying.
The “pleb” reference stirs resentments that linger even as Britons of the egalitarian persuasion try to shake off the vestiges of class discrimination. Steven Fielding, director of the Center of British Politics at the University of Nottingham, said it sends voters a blunt message: “This government is not one that’s interested in people like you.”
Funny, that’s how some Americans felt about our small “c” conservatives after the secret recording of the Republican presidential candidate telling donors in a May fundraiser that 47 percent of the U.S. population pays no income tax and therefore has little interest in his tax-cutting platform. He’s had to do some backpedaling since, but stands by his basic philosophy of reducing government assistance and promoting self-reliance.
On both sides of the water, politicians who aspire to win must avoid alienating large segments of the voting population. Both Democrats and Republicans go out of their way to convince us they’re just like the boy (or girl) next door (even though most Americans probably have a hard time envisioning their next-door neighbor as president). Finding someone with the ability to lead a nation without losing touch with everyday people is a big test for any democracy. Picking one who manages to pull it off without coming across as an out-and-out fraud is even tougher.