Ancient Roman insult tips top Tory into trouble

After police claimed he swore at them, Tory Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell is fighting to keep his job. It is not the curses that might bring him down, but an ancient insult: ‘pleb’.

During a debate in the senate of Ancient Rome, the word ‘pleb’ would not have raised an eyebrow. Nor would it in the playgrounds of 19th Century schools. Yet when top Conservative politician Andrew Mitchell was reported to have used it in a rant at a policeman, he was quickly engulfed in scandal that may capsize his entire career.

Mitchell, the Tory Chief Whip, is claimed to have unleashed his unprintable tirade last Wednesday, frustrated by police blocking the main exit to Downing Street. Two days later it was reported in The Sun.

Yesterday the police revealed their full report. There was plenty of swearing, sure enough, and references to ‘shocked’ bystanders. Mitchell has admitted getting angry with the police and apologised. But the one word he denies is the one that could be his downfall: that pesky little ‘pleb’. Why is it so toxic?

With a history stretching back to the earliest days of Rome, ‘pleb’ is one of the oldest insults in the English language. In those days kings still ruled over the city, and those families closest to the monarch, known as ‘patrician’, had a special status. Less fortunate citizens were called ‘plebeian’.

When the kings were overthrown and replaced by a Republic, a great struggle between the two classes broke out. For some time patricians hoarded top political roles for themselves, until their privileges were gradually eroded. Soon, all important posts were open to the plebeians; and when the Republic was replaced by an Empire, some of the most celebrated emperors were ‘plebs’.

Two thousand years late the word made a comeback: in the grand public schools of Victorian Britain, students not from the landed gentry were known as ‘plebs’.

So if Mitchell really did call the policeman a ‘pleb’, he was mocking him for having a lower social status. This is dangerous territory. Critics of the Conservatives already accuse them of being elitist, out of touch and even ‘patrician’, while Mitchell himself comes from a wealthy family scattered with Tory politicians.

A touch of class

Ranting at policemen is bad behaviour, of course. But people say all sorts of rude things when they are tired and annoyed. To Mitchell’s defenders, this was no worse than hundreds of other ill-advised rants. He has apologised, they say, and that ought to be that.

But words uttered in anger can be revealing. And when a successful, privileged man uses a snobbish word like ‘pleb’, say Mitchell’s enemies, that is one of those occasions. Such imperious classism is no better than racism or sexism, they say. Mitchell has demonstrated a total disrespect for the majority of people, and must resign immediately.

You Decide

  1. Should it be a criminal offence to shout and swear at police officers?
  2. Is an insult based social status as offensive as an insult based on race or gender?

Activities

  1. Andrew Mitchell has said sorry for his rant, but his apology was criticised as insincere and incomplete. Try writing another one for him that might be more widely accepted.
  2. In the 5th and 4th Centuries BC, plebeians and patricians battled for control of the Roman Republic. Research the Republic and write a brief explanation of how it worked.

Some People Say...

“I am proud to call myself a pleb.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.
Perhaps. But there are still some insults you should never use.
Like what?
Anything racist, sexist or homophobic for a start. You might mean it as a joke, but you could easily cause serious offence. And with good reason: people really are discriminated against based on aspects of their identity like race and gender, and even verbal abuse can be very damaging.
But I can’t be polite all the time. That would be boring – not to mention impossible.
It’s okay to criticise, and everybody gets angry sometimes. But there’s no excuse for bullying or aggression, and you should never abuse somebody for something they can’t control.

Word Watch

Chief Whip
In a parliamentary system, the role of a whip is to get members of their party to vote in unison. There are varying degrees of sternness: a one-line whip is little more than a suggestion, whereas a three-line whip cannot be disobeyed without real repercussions. Andrew Mitchell, who was known at Rugby School as ‘Thrasher’, is known as a fearsome disciplinarian.
Downing Street
On this street are located the residences of Britain’s two most important politicians: the Prime Minister at Number 10, the Chancellor of the Exchequer at Number 11.
Republic
The Roman Republic was a complex system of government that combined oligarchy with some elements of democracy. ‘Magistrates’ were voted in for short terms, with two people filling each post to prevent power from becoming concentrated. The unelected senate was also powerful, however: its advice on legislation almost always passed into law.
Empire
As Rome’s colonies multiplied, the Republic struggled to control them. Conflicts broke out between powerful generals and politicians, and the empire teetered on the brink of collapse. Eventually these individuals took control of the government, and soon Rome was ruled by emperors – the first being Augustus.
Public schools
Confusingly, British ‘public schools’ are actually the most exclusive establishments in private education. These are old, expensive and extremely prestigious schools like Eton, Westminster and Rugby, which have produced countless famous figures from politics and the arts.

Subjects