Many years ago I was on the Cambridge Union Committee when Andrew Mitchell was President. Speaking as a bit of a pleb myself I never got the impression that this was a word he’d use or even a concept he’d recognise. I wish him well in the ongoing ‘plebgate’ investigations.
But the whole affair has set me thinking. Why is the word ‘pleb’ so outrageous that the mere suggestion that one has used it might be enough to end, or at least interrupt, an otherwise impressive career? Yet at the same time left-leaning politicians and lazy ‘comedians’ can always rely on the word ‘toff’ to get them a cheap laugh or round of applause. Remember for example the Crewe and Nantwich by-election in 2008 when Labour poured out the invective on Conservative candidate Edward Timpson – ‘The Timperley toff’, ‘Lord Snooty’ and so on. (Outcome – 17% swing to Conservatives, first by-election gain for over 15 years.) And how, ironically, some of the attacks on Ed Miliband himself (always happy to use the class card in his ‘one nation’ Labourism – recall how he laid into Mitchell at the height of the issue) from the nastier element of the Left in his own party dismiss him as ‘just another Labour toff’, causing to have to make huge play of his comprehensive education (at Haverstock in Chalk Farm, sometimes referred to as ‘Labour’s Eton’, before he went on to Oxford and Harvard).
On the face of it these terms ‘pleb’ and ‘toff’ are joined at the hip. Both, like a whole string of other words that rightly we don’t use in the field of race, sexuality, gender and so on, seek to denigrate someone on the basis of something beyond their control, in this case the circumstances of their family of origin. Both imply that one can assume large amounts about a person’s character based on a single feature and that all people with that feature are basically the same. And of course both seek to imply that the object of the insult is unfitted to play certain roles in society. Yet pleb is outrageous, toff is funny and to be applauded.
Why should this be? I think the answer is pretty simple. The Liberal Establishment, that group of control freaks (whose own background, like Miliband’s, is generally speaking far more ‘toff’ than ‘pleb’) who have taken it on themselves to dictate what is acceptable and what is not – indeed who is acceptable and who is not – have decided the issue for us. “Burn the witch” shouted at a photograph of Lady Thatcher gets gales of laughter, “one-eyed Scottish idiot” aimed at Gordon Brown in the same week gets calls for sacking and a forced apology. (Indeed a prior similar comment about Mr Brown from one of the left’s darling comedians went unnoticed and has been scrubbed from the internet as far as I can find.) I’m not defending either comment but they don’t seem all that much different to me, and of course it is much easier to find much worse personal attacks on politicians of the Right than it is on those of the Left.
The attack on freedom has taken a slightly different course recently. There is an increasing shift from those who are uncomfortable with variety and dissent away from restricting action. Even Labour is not thinking of returning taxes back to the levels they presided over in the 1970s, and we are still by law allowed to say some things that are a bit risqué as defined by the Liberal Establishment. In its place is coming a more subtle attack on what happens next. You’re allowed to earn money but not to spend it on giving your children a good start in life (there’s been a noticeable recent upping of the attacks on private education, in part through the ‘toff’ agenda which is of course very simplistic anyway). You’re technically allowed to make jokes or comments that the LE disapproves of but the consequences for your career and general social standing can be severe. Whatever factors are inflating the UKIP bubble, a reaction among normal folk against the strait-jacket of modern Liberalism is surely worth a good few puffs.
There’s a story of a young American journalist who was given an audience with Stalin after the War. The journalist said to Stalin, “The difference between my country and yours is that I can go into Time Square and shout ‘I hate the American President’ and nothing will happen to me”. Stalin said, “You are wrong, it is just the same here. I can promise you that you can go into Red Square and shout ‘I hate the American president’ and nothing will happen to you here either”. The LE’s view of freedom – a freedom to do anything that the LE approves of, especially if it might offend a few more traditionally-minded folk who probably vote Conservative anyway – is not all that different from the attitude taken by some pretty unpleasant regimes in the past. It’s a shame, because the Liberal tradition of protecting minorities and defending freedom to offend those in authority (formal or soft) used to be a strong and honourable one.