Arrogance has always been a characteristic of politicians, the belief that they are right and always right. They will brook little dissent even in democratic systems of government: ‘there is no Plan B’. In a deferential society this may not have been a problem largely because in return for deference from most in society, the political elite had a reciprocal responsibility of ‘care’ for those lower down the social ladder. Although this may have satisfied the middle-classes with aspirations to climb into the political elite and who, largely through pressure group politics, could exert some influence on the political elite but that was rarely the case with the urban working-classes largely divorced from the persistent deference of rural Britain. For the working-classes, there had already been what Thomas Carlyle called ‘an abdication on the part of the governors’ as the political elite removed the paternalistic legislation that protected working people from too much exploitation as ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ replaced any sense of social responsibility. Some sense of social responsibility may have remained, as fictionalised in Downton Abbey, for ones tenants and servants but this was already in terminal decline by the end of the First World War.
Conflict between classes was, and remains, an important feature of British society and in the last two decades this had been evident in the growing gap (however you construe it) between rich and poor and a declining ability of individuals to rise in society, something successive governments have failed to resolve despite the dramatic increase in places and entry into higher education. Keeping the poor in their place is still an important element of some political thinking especially on the political right. The rhetoric of aspiration is parroted by all political parties and bursaries demonstrate that paternalism is alive and kicking but the reality in most people’s lives is very different and Britain is an increasingly divided society. There is an elite largely divorced from the lives of ordinary people who frequently do not recognise that their actions have consequences for society as a whole but that do not impinge on their own protected ways of life. That its actions often appear (and are) immoral or at least amoral but are not recognised as such by those involved is the clearest expression of the arrogance of power in society. Banks, for instance, have been shown to have acted immorally and, in some cases, illegally but for many higher level bankers this appears to have been perfectly justifiable and when they are called to account before parliamentary select committees they are, to be generous, circumspect in their understanding of the truth. Where economic prosperity and morality are in conflict it is prosperity that trumps morality every time.
Deference has decayed since the beginnings of the nineteenth century first among the working-classes and, post-1968, among the middle-classes as well and there has been a parallel growth of overt arrogance among politicians of all political colours and across all political institutions, whether local, regional, national or European. Politicians in the first half of the nineteenth century, for instance, may have regarded much of society as plebeian but recognised that, even though ‘the plebs’ were largely unenfranchised, their aspirations and concerns needed to be taken into account and acted on to prevent the revolutions that characterised much of continental Europe and that the burgeoning middle-classes needed to be brought within the ‘hallowed’ circles of political power. This sense of connection no longer exists and politicians are regarded as self-serving, money-grubbing parasites who have no real answers to society’s problems but are quite prepared to enrich themselves while the rest of society flounders. Whether or not Andrew Mitchell actually used the term ‘pleb’ is less important than the perception that his actions demonstrates that the notion ‘we are all in this together’ is palpably untrue. The idea that ‘we know best’ and an overweening sense of social hubris have never been a solid foundation on which to build effective political power and, as the Romans recognised early in their republic, the patricians in society ignore the plebs at their peril.