From the archive: The establishment’s disdain for public service workers is hidden in plain sight
“Best you learn your f***ing place. You don’t run this f***ing government. You’re f***ing plebs. I’ll have your f***ing job for this.” So ranted the Government’s Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell to members of SO6, the Diplomatic Protection Group guarding Downing Street, according to the Sun newspaper. Unlike Mitt Romney’s recent remarks we don’t have the secretly-recorded video footage, but whether Mitchell said these exact words doesn’t matter. The policy establishment’s disdain for public service workers is there for all to see – just look at their policies and how they develop them.
Andrew Mitchell claims he actually said: “You guys are supposed to f***ing help us.” Whatever his actual words, Mitchell’s tirade was especially tasteless given that the group of officers he swore at included a female officer, just over 24 hours after the murders of PCs Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes in Manchester. It’s also pretty special to verbally abuse the people who spend their working lives protecting you. Paul McKeever, chairman of the Police Federation, said it was “hard to fathom how someone who holds the police in such contempt could be allowed to hold a public office.” Unfortunately, it’s not that hard to fathom at all – indeed such attitudes appear to be the driving force behind much public service reform over the past 30 years or so.
Much commentary has focused on the class dimensions of ‘Gate-gate’ (and whether or not Mitchell uttered the apparently politically lethal word ‘plebs’). As the Sun Says: “It is something a smug, fabulously-rich snob might say to belittle his badly-behaved butler. And as such it reinforces the view that millions of ordinary hard- working voters already have …That Britain is run by an upper-class clique — happily slapping VAT on pasties and freezing pensioners’ allowances while handing tax cuts to the super-rich.” Benedict Brogan in the Telegraph wasn’t alone in noting the potential toxicity of the incident to the Tories, but also that such behaviours aren’t unique to one party: “Labour is declaring itself appalled, though frankly that’s a bit rich from the party whose previous leader failed to shake the copper’s hand outside No10 and called an old lady a ‘bigot’.” Such incidents are cock-ups; they also indicate an underlying elitism and detachment prevalent in the political establishment.
Unlike Mitt Romney’s “47 per cent” remarks, we don’t have video footage (yet) of what Mitchell said. But like Romney, what the police offers claim Mitchell said to them represents an essentially dismissive attitude to working people – a worldview described by Paul Krugman in the New York Times this week with reference to the Romney video: “…the modern Republican Party just doesn’t have much respect for people who work for other people, no matter how faithfully and well they do their jobs. All the party’s affection is reserved for “job creators,” aka employers and investors. Leading figures in the party find it hard even to pretend to have any regard for ordinary working families.”
Much the same attitude seems to be prevalent in the policy establishment here regarding public service workers – that they are somehow ‘failures’ for not having had the entrepreneurial zeal to have established their own internet marketing companies (or something equally socially productive), having decided instead to fritter away their time serving others – educating children, treating patients, cleaning streets and so on.
In the case of Mitchell’s outburst, we don’t need to see the video footage from Downing Street’s security cameras, since the policy establishment’s view of public service workers is hidden in plain sight. If the policy establishment had a greater genuine regard for the people who provide public services, they might deign to engage them in working out how public services can be improved, and especially in how policy is developed such that it supports this improvement. Instead, public service workers are more typically regarded as the ‘problem’ to be resolved (and as interests to be battled) – part of the obstructive ‘state monopolies’ that need to be broken up, rather than sources of expertise and insight that should be recognised and respected. This explains why all the main political parties would like to ‘liberate’ public sector workers so that they run their own providing organisations as part of a competitive market in public services – at least then they might join the vaunted ranks of the ‘wealth creators’, albeit at a lowly rank.
The issue then is not so much social class as the types of social occupation now common in the political establishment. It’s probably not a coincidence that both Mitt Romney and Andrew Mitchell have backgrounds in management consultancy – Romney in Boston Consulting before moving to Bain, and Mitchell as a Senior Strategy Advisor for Accenture. In this respect, both are typical of a political establishment that comprises people who have never worked in public services but nonetheless feel they know how services can be ‘made’ to work better by (re-)ordering those who do.
Perhaps then the most helpful reaction to Mitchell’s outburst has been from an unnamed Cabinet minister, who suggested to the Telegraph that he should consider volunteering to work alongside police for a few days as a penance. “It’s what you do in this sort of thing, isn’t it?” the minister said. “A few days in a high-visibility jacket with the cops could be just the thing for Andrew.”
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