To pleb or not to pleb? Apparently, this is the question. Are you one of them, or one of us? Are you a 'posho' or a 'real person'?
The Andrew Mitchell pleb row of the past weeks is just the latest example of the class war being cultivated in political circles. It is not the first. But the response to this particular incident, the vitriol both in parliament and in the press, suggests the advance of a dangerous definition of identity that is a challenge to the very nature of representative democracy.
Because as blog after blog and MP after MP calls for more 'plebs' in the corridors of power, we become increasingly certain that the emblem sewn decades ago onto our school blazer is the critical factor in determining our political persuasion. The 'Bullingdon bullies', 'Cameron's cronies', or as Nadine Dorries so sensitively put it, "two arrogant posh boys", of course have no hope of understanding ordinary people. Thank goodness for Ed Miliband's One Nation.
But wait. Just for a moment let's wait, and let's ask why? Why can a person from a privileged background not understand the fears and ambitions of the kid from the council estate? What is it that blinkers him to the rest of the world? Are we truly suggesting that we can only understand that which we have experienced?
What a sad and limiting situation we would find ourselves in if this were true. Empathy is not only one of the most beautiful parts of humanity, but it is essential to the concept of representation.
A great deal has been made recently of the un-representativeness of parliament. Almost half of British women feel under represented. There are not enough disabled mps. There are too few ethnic minorities. And, most importantly, 35% of mps are privately educated compared to just 7% of the population. That makes the poshos five times over-represented.
Except, that is doesn't. It makes the privately educated five times more reflected than in general society. But - theoretically at least - every one of our MPs should be representing the views of every one of their constituents. That is the fundamental task we give them. That is representative democracy. Not to speak and act like us, but to speak and act for us.
The instant that we depart from this idea we enter dangerous territory. Because in our campaign for parliament to more accurately reflect the demographic make-up of British society, not only do we call for more of some 'types' of people, but we call for less of others. And more than that, we begin to define what 'type' we are.
Can a Muslim only understand other Muslims? Should a gay person only be allowed to legislate for other gays?
In parliament today approximately 3.6% of MPs are Jewish, yet in the general population the Jewish community makes up less than half a percent. This means - in a far more extreme way than the poshos - that Jews are over-represented eight times over. Should there be less? Shall we have quotas? Only 10 Jews allowed here. Hark, the unsettling sounds of a previous century.
Of course put in these terms, most people would agree that discriminating quotas are not necessary. And that being Jewish or Muslim or black or disabled or gay or married or young or old are not the deciding factors of one's political ideology. Nor of one's character. So then why is class? And why are the anti-Eton insults that fly so flippantly across the Commons and in the press, tolerated and encouraged? Would we abide any other form of abuse? The response to Andrew Mitchell's 'pleb' comment demonstrates that we do not.
There is of course the old argument that in insulting the privileged we are not picking on the weak - we are merely bullying the bully so to speak. But this sentiment not only patronises the poor, it also singlehandedly sanctions discrimination and harassment, while igniting class tensions and prejudices that our society would do far better without.
If Miliband is serious about uniting the country into one nation, then he must stamp out his party's inflammatory class rhetoric. If any part of the public is serious about getting their specific views heard, then they must vote and lobby and stand for election.
Nobody is defending Mitchell's alleged remarks. If they are true, then he was right to go because they smack of pomposity and disregard. But it is these characteristics themselves that we should seek to remove from power. Across all parties, across all classes. Not simply those men demarcated by an old school blazer.
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