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WHEN HARRY MET SHARON

- Obsessions that dare not speak their names

Typically, no one turned a hair at the Tory Party’s Chief Whip being accused of hurling not one but three “f***ings” at a police officer on duty at the corner of Downing Street and Whitehall. Bad language is par for the course in today’s Britain, where the violence of The X-Factor vies for TV popularity with the elegance of Downton Abbey. But press and politicians are still excitedly discussing the noun that is said to have followed the f-word. It’s “pleb” that makes people furious; it’s calling the police officer “pleb” that makes Andrew Mitchell sound like an arrogant titled snob; and it’s “pleb” that he has still not expressly denied saying.

The row that erupted last year when John Terry, a former England football captain, was accused of calling a mixed-race rival a “f***ing black c***” during a game highlighted a similar quirk of contemporary British society. Terry would probably have gone scot free if he had called the other fellow only a “f***ing c***”. As one commentator noted, “The Football Association wouldn’t care. The police wouldn’t get involved. He’d still be in the squad, despite a long and inglorious history of parking in disabled bays, smashing beer glasses full of pee, flogging his discounted Wembley box, taking £10,000 for private tours of Chelsea and of course cheating on his partner repeatedly, not least with one of his mate’s wives.” It’s “black” that makes people furious; it’s calling the other footballer “black” that makes Terry sound like an aggressive, ignorant white bully; and it’s “black” that he initially denied saying.

Britain has abolished class and colour just as India has abolished caste and the old Soviet Union abolished god as an anachronism. Calling someone a pleb or black is using a particular word to differentiate one person from another when authority has decreed there is no such distinction between man and man. Everyone, be he ever so dark, is white. Everyone (even Her Majesty) is classy enough to speak the classless Estuary English. Anyone who uses some form of recognizable distinction does so with malice aforethought to insult the other person. Or, at the very least, to put him or her in his or her place.

It wasn’t always so. A local housewife who wanted to thank me for covering the accidental killing of her only child when I was a reporter in England more than 50 years ago telephoned the newspaper and asked to speak to “the coloured gentleman” whose name and nationality she didn’t know. The pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme. Some months ago, the master of a famous Cambridge college told me of a new student whose surname I at once recognized as having been prominent in Anglo-Indian circles in my boyhood. Obviously, something had aroused the master’s curiosity, but when I asked if the boy looked or sounded at all Indian, he replied, “You know, I never notice such things!” Wild horses couldn’t drag more out of his politically correct reticence.

Class is the other obsession that dare not speak its name. In an earlier and more candid age, British public schools registered boys who were not of the nobility as plebeian. By the late Nineties, when my son went to Haileybury, the school’s slang codes for working class boys and girls were “Kev” and “Sharon”, these supposedly being favourite christenings below the salt. Princes William and Harry and their mates called hoi-polloi “chav”. The term is said to derive from the gypsy word for youth but among the other origins suggested for chav is a police officer’s visually evocative “Council Housed and Violent”. Class distinctions lurk strongly below the crust of society’s equanimity just as caste awareness does in India. Mitchell’s plebs abuse must have been all the more wounding for being so near the bone.

A true patrician, so the pundits say, would never abuse the lower orders for being that. He accepts responsibility for them as part of an integrated social hierarchy in which rich and poor, master and servant, are part of a harmonious natural order. The writer, Simon Raven, who served in the British army in India, claimed that the particular verse of the popular hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful, that set this out was forbidden in the regimental church in Kalyan where his regiment was posted. But thanks to school chapel morning after morning, I remember well those lines that the sensitive military banned, “The rich man in his castle,/ The poor man at his gate,/ God made them high and lowly,/ And ordered their estate.”

Castle and gate clashed acrimoniously when Mitchell on a bicycle with a wicker basket on his handlebars demanded to be let through the vehicles gate from Downing Street into Whitehall. The police officer’s offer to open the pedestrian gate instead since this is what all cyclists use was peremptorily rejected. That’s when the abuse is said to have followed with Mitchell bellowing, “You haven’t heard the last of this!” The Tory Chief Whip’s choice of epithet must have seemed especially rich coming from a man whose grandmother was the daughter of a charwoman and herself a domestic servant, and whose male ancestors on his mother’s side included a railway guard and a lineman. The public face Mitchell projects, however, is of a rich and propertied Rugby old boy and fourth-generation member of Parliament, though it became a bit tarnished at the edges when he claimed 13p for some correction fluid and 45p for a stick of glue on expenses. More notoriously, he was involved in dodging £2.6 million in stamp duty, money which would pay the annual wages of more than 60 police officers who, being indisputably plebs, are not entitled to an MP’s fancy perks.

For good or ill, Mitchell’s outburst and an earlier fracas involving the Olympics minister, Hugh Robertson, whom a policeman failed to recognize — “You should damn’ well know who I am!” Robertson yelled) — suggest that Britain may be going India’s way. Class is no longer self-evident. Nor is it an indefinable attribute, as in Nancy Mitford’s U and non-U analysis. Even the people-like-us definition breaks down when politicians swear like footballers (and vice versa) and class is only a function of status symbols. No wonder Mitchell has been clamouring for a car, something no previous Chief Whip enjoyed. And not any car either, certainly not an inconspicuous Toyota Prius like David Cameron’s ministers. Only a chauffeur-driven Jaguar can support his rank.

Britain prided itself in the past on being the most democratic of aristocracies and the most aristocratic of democracies. But the present betokens a future in which the monarch might adapt Edward VII’s “We are all socialists nowadays” to “We are all foul-mouthed plebs nowadays.” Some have money and some don’t. It’s the only criterion. Britain is catching up with globalization.