Chavs, plebs, and military language: Andrew Mitchell’s outburst

September 25, 2012

This week in the UK, Andrew Mitchell, a Government Minister and former military officer, faced a career-damaging episode in a dispute with police, when he was leaving the Houses of Parliament. It was to become a news story and an example of inappropriate use of military language

The critical encounter was over in minutes. In essence, what is undisputed is that Andrew Mitchell, a senior Government minister, attempted to leave the Houses of Parliament in London on Wednesday 19th September [2012] by bicycle. He was prevented from using the main gate and was requested to leave by a smaller pedestrian way adjacent to the main gate. The minister later conceded that he had become angry after ‘a hard day’ and had spoken inappropriately to a police officer.

The F word and the P word

What became the core of the dispute is what was later reported by the police. The offending words according to the police including a few popular expletives, and one curious term of abuse “plebs”.

A pleb is shorthand for plebeian or a member of the general public, and implies inferiority to a ruling elite. It is not a particularly widely used term. When uttered it is often used by someone in authority with a whiff of irony and a dash of patronising about “the masses” or “the great unwashed”.

Plebs, chavs and military language

At a meeting with military officers a few years ago, I was surprised to hear the term “chav” which appeared to be popularly applied in a somewhat similar fashion. The “chav” analogy may be irrelevant, beyond my casual assumption that “military language” is another British euphemism and implies a way of speaking which is too offensive to be repeatable in public. Mr Mitchell was a former army officer.

Background to the developing story

The Sun newspaper broke the story over the weekend [September 22nd-23rd]

Andrew Mitchell — newly-promoted by PM David Cameron — raged: “You’re f***ing plebs.”
John Tully, Chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation has backed The Sun’s account after speaking to the abused officer.

Mr Tully reportedly said: “I know what the officer has told me and I know who I believe.”

“I know Mr Mitchell has apologised and that’s good, but it’s not enough.”
The cycling Tory’s outburst came the day after two women PCs were shot dead
An eyewitness said Mr Mitchell, 56, also branded them “morons”.

Speaking on a visit to Greater Manchester Police headquarters in the wake of the murders of Pcs Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes, Mr Cameron said: “What Andrew Mitchell said and what he did was not appropriate. It was wrong and it is right that he has apologised.


The Sun’s very close relationship with the police was examined in the Levenson enquiry. Once again it seemed to have good inside sources. Its lead on Mr Mitchell was picked up by other print and electronic media. The police story appears to be officially recorded as a logged incident expanding on the earlier Sun version
“Mr Mitchell was then silent and left saying ‘you haven’t heard the last of this’ as he cycled off. “I forward this to you as all officers were extremely polite to Mr Mitchell, but such behaviour and verbal expressions could lead to the unfortunate situation of officers being left no option but to exercise their powers [of arrest] I write this for your information as Mr Mitchell’s last comments would appear to indicate that he is unhappy with my actions. I have recorded this fully in my pocket book.”

How not to apologise

The Guardian considered that Mr Mitchell’s subsequent apology to the press [the morning of September 24th] compounded his problems, quoting a few useful “does and don’t” for effective apologies.

The political battles ahead

Mr Mitchell remains beleaguered. The timing of the event, during the national conferences of the main political parties, suggests that the story will unfold further over the next week or so.