LONDON — In class-conscious Britain, a Cabinet minister is in trouble over a four-letter word: "pleb."
The single syllable was reportedly not the most profane part of Andrew Mitchell’s tirade at police officers who asked him to get off his bicycle as he passed through the gates of Downing Street. But it is the most incendiary — a pejorative term for the working class with a whiff of contempt that is bad news for a government often characterized as elitist.
Class distinctions are the great elephant in the room in British society, ever-present but rarely discussed. It’s a topic that proves a minefield for any politician keen to appeal to a wide range of voters. And the four-letter clanger attributed to Mitchell lands as a thudding reminder that class is still a potent and divisive aspect of British life.
Last week’s altercation between the minister and police officers guarding the approach to the prime minister’s residence has been seized on by the media and political opposition and escalated into a political tempest with its own title: “Gategate.”
Mitchell on Monday apologized for the incident, in which — according to press reports — he told the officers “Best you learn your (expletive) place. You don’t run this (expletive) government. You’re (expletive) plebs.”
The Metropolitan Police force has not officially confirmed the account, but says it has launched an investigation into how internal police information was leaked to the press.
Mitchell conceded that he had lost his temper at “the end of a long and extremely frustrating day.”
“I didn’t show the police the amount of respect I should have done,” Mitchell said. But, he added: “I want to make it absolutely clear that I did not use the words that have been attributed to me.”
Mitchell’s reported word choice is a blow to attempts by Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative-led administration to downplay its image as a privileged club.
Pleb — short for plebeian — comes from the Latin plebeius, the mass of ordinary citizens apart from the elite of upper-class patricians.
First recorded in the late 18th century, “it has always had quite strong pejorative overtones,” said Denny Hilton of the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary notes that pleb is often used to mean “an unsophisticated or uncultured person.”
Mitchell’s showdown with police also came days after two unarmed policewomen were shot dead in the city of Manchester, with public sympathy and admiration for officers riding high.
“The timing is almost indescribably bad,” said Steven Fielding, director of the Center for British Politics at the University of Nottingham.
Worse, he said, is the message the term pleb sends ordinary voters: “This government is not one that’s interested in people like you.”
“It’s got connotations that are unfortunate and draw attention to a certain kind of Conservative, a certain image of the Conservative Party, which David Cameron has been trying to move the party away from,” Fielding said.
Cameron — who has aristocratic origins and is distantly related to Queen Elizabeth II — has worked to overcome the Conservatives’ traditional image as the party of the ruling class. But opponents point out that half the members of his Cabinet went to private schools — which educate about 7 percent of all Britons — while two-thirds are millionaires.
Both Cameron and Treasury chief George Osborne attended Eton, the most exclusive of all private schools, which counts Princes William and Harry among its alumni. Mitchell — who as Chief Whip is responsible for maintaining discipline among government lawmakers — attended the scarcely less elite Rugby, where the sport of the same name was founded. His nickname there, according to media reports, was “Thrasher.”
Opponents like to remind voters that Cameron and Osborne once belonged to the Bullingdon Club, an elite Oxford University dining society with a reputation for drunken vandalism.
The opposition Labour Party successfully painted the government as out of touch with ordinary Britons earlier this year over a planned levy on takeaway pastries such as meat pies, sausage rolls and Cornish pasties. The “pasty tax” was depicted as an attack on cheap and filling working-class snacks, and was later dropped.
The “pleb” controversy is another unfortunate reminder of Britain’s class divide for a government that’s currently slashing welfare benefits and public sector pensions as part of 50 billion pounds ($80 billion) in spending cuts.
If Mitchell hoped Monday’s statement would end the episode, he may be disappointed. Labour Party crime spokeswoman Yvette Cooper called on authorities to review surveillance video footage in a bid to work out exactly what Mitchell said.
John Tully, chairman of police union the Metropolitan Police Federation, said Mitchell was accusing police officers of lying.
“Clearly Mr. Mitchell is denying using certain words, effectively now impugning the integrity of the police officers,” he told Sky News.
“I think that is very serious. I think the prime minister or Downing Street officials should hold an inquiry and if Mr. Mitchell is proved to have lied, then he should be sacked.”