The Andrew Mitchell affair is the latest example of the wide gap between media chatter and the complexities and confusion of that other planet we call real life. A politician’s career is threatened by an episode of poor behaviour. He’s being held to account for it by the cynical and opportunist who hypocritically set impossibly high standards of behaviour. The public school image it conjures up for this old Rugbeian is poor Tom Brown, held to the fire by the bully Flashsman. . Why do they do it? To create new plots for the soap opera that public life has become. And everybody falls for it and plays the game, none more so than political leaderships who are its main accessories and so often, its victims. This is the politics of the Roman amphitheatre and the stocks, far more unpleasant than the offence itself.
Look at it another way. Part of Mitchell’s sense of security and yes, status has long been the ability to ride his bike through the Downing St gates. He loses it when some plod ( another offensive term but OK class wise,) take it into his head to order him to wheel the bloody thing back up Downing St a bit and go down the path to the pedestrian exit. Tiresome, and he loses it. We don’t quite know why he did it but we all make the same mistake of losing our temper. Unwise, wrong, rude, all that. Surprising even. But career threatening? Get a grip.
Not that police officers as a class are treated any better. Today they’re all saints, just after the murder of the two Manchester woman officers. The other day they were brutes or incompetents, pushing over a hapless alcoholic to his death , executing a man with a gun through a car window and sparking two days of riots, and telling lies to cover up the gross negligence of Hillsborough.
The habit of sensationalising error is eroding standards of public justice and corroding civilised behaviour. We see far more alarming examples of it in the Muslim fury that sweeps the world. Social media seems to fuel it. A counter weight is not in sight. If people is public life are not cut the same slack we demand for ourselves, fear of attack will paralyse them from taking decisions. There are signs of this happening already. The Conservatives will never detoxify their brand – if that is really their problem – if they fail to show self confidence in admitting error and moving on. Waving around hack phrases like “ out of touch “ and “the arrogance of power “ is no substitute for grown up behaviour.
Modern Toryism is schizophrenic about class. As a whole they’re equivocating about Mitchell’s resignation. They tend to denounce the politics of envy. On the other hand when they sniff a good story about a toff’s bad behaviour, they’ll pounce, like the Mail. The best the Torygraph can come up with is a quite a good attempt to laugh it off. For now, it will have to do.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London