This is a tremendous time for ‘ordinary’ people. The elitists, the members of the ‘establishment’, are all on the run. Except, of course, that everybody is ordinary now. Or at least nobody admits to being an insider, a member of the Westminster bubble, of the establishment, or of any such posh outfit. There is no ‘them’, only ‘us’, united in conflict with an arrogant, out-of-touch, privileged class that doesn’t apparently exist. Those who don’t recognise their ordinariness, but persist in believing in their superiority, are instantly cut down. David Mellor is the latest example, exposed for boasting to a London taxi driver that he had been in the cabinet, was a Queen’s Counsel and an ‘award-winning broadcaster’, while he, the taxi driver, was an uneducated ‘smart-arsed little bastard’.
Before that there was Emily Thornberry, who was forced to resign as Labour’s shadow attorney-general for implying, in a tweeted photograph, that she had a poor opinion of white van drivers. But the greatest blow to the vainglorious has been last week’s rejection of a libel case against the Sun newspaper by the former Conservative chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, who was alleged to have called a policeman a ‘pleb’. In delivering his verdict, however, the judge, Mr Justice Mitting, came dangerously close to snootiness himself when he said that the policeman concerned, PC Rowland, was ‘not the sort of man who would have had the wit, imagination or inclination to invent on the spur of the moment an account of what a senior politician had said to him in temper’. I hope he did not mean that policemen in general lack wit or imagination.
I feel some sympathy for Emily Thornberry. While it was idiotic of her in the present political climate to publish a photograph of a house draped with St George’s flags and a white van parked outside, suggesting a kind of brutishness and vulgarity on the part of Ukip supporters, she did it without comment. And she is hardly alone in her prejudice against white van drivers. I have no doubt that Ed Miliband, who forced her out of the shadow cabinet in a vaunted display of outrage, shares it; and I myself have marvelled at the extent to which white van drivers live up to their reputation for pushiness and aggression on the roads. In fact, I could have been killed by one last weekend when he tried to overtake me in the middle of a Northamptonshire village just as I was signalling that I was about to turn right. I don’t like white van drivers either, though Ukip would hardly be doing well if it relied only on them for its support.
Policemen and taxi drivers can be provocative too, capable of much arrogance and stubbornness. In the case of David Mellor, at least, we do not know what his cabbie may have said or done to provoke him before recording his boorish outburst. But however annoying it was, it could not have justified his stream of vulgar invective. The same goes for Mitchell’s loutish response to the police’s irritating refusal to let him ride his bicycle out through the main gate of Downing Street. What makes such prominent people behave in this way? The ones who do so are usually to be found among those who believe that they owe their eminence entirely to their own efforts and ability, and not to good fortune or to anybody else. This was perhaps truer of Mellor, the grammar school boy from South Dorset, than of Andrew Mitchell, the Rubgy-educated son of a Tory knight, but nobody ever gets anywhere without at least some element of luck. It is their refusal to accept this that makes some successful people look down on those who haven’t had the drive or the talent to rise in the world.
The only tolerable grandees are those who recognise how lucky they have been. The late philanthropist, John Paul Getty, who inherited an American oil fortune, did recognise this, as inevitably do winners of the National Lottery. The same goes for most people born into wealth or status. From the Queen downwards, they are aware that they owe everything to an accident of birth and that otherwise they might be among the lowest of the low. With doubtless many exceptions, this causes them to show humility with their social inferiors, or at any rate to be polite to them. They know how ordinary they could easily be.