Somebody said something this week that really upset me. In the middle of an otherwise pedestrian conversation about weekend plans and assignments, they referred to someone as a 'pleb'. I was taken aback. A pleb? Did the human being sitting before me really just use that word? I wasn't sure whether to cry shamefully on their behalf, burst out laughing at the sheer archaism of the term, or slap them. Instead, I chose to tut and share my feelings in the more impersonal yet probably safer form of this blog.
The 'Plebgate' row involving Andrew Mitchell MP, who resigned following his alleged use of the derogatory term, reopened the wounds of a heated debate about the British class system. A police officer who falsely claimed to have witnessed the event has since been arrested, but that's another story. Whether Mr Mitchell uttered the word or not, 'Plebgate' is a microcosm of the injustice faced by millions because of where they come from and the opportunities available to them.
According to our friends over at the Oxford English Dictionary, a 'pleb' is 'an ordinary person'. Since when did being ordinary serve as justification for insult? In the aftermath of 'Plebgate', we were falling over ourselves to use the word in forthright mockery of the snobbish elite. Using the term may have drawn attention to class boundaries, but it also served to further alienate the upper and lower fringes of society.
Imagine if you will a barrier of money. We're hardly talking Berlin Wall scale here, just a barrier made of loads and loads of white, cotton notes, you know the stuff. Each of these notes represents a life-changing summer camp, a private school place, a shiny copy of 'Pride and Prejudice' for Christmas... And as all the pleb kids gaze awesomely at the money wall, their parents feel guilty at not belonging to the socio-economic class that would give them that head start in life.
It is eerily unsurprising that the 85 richest people in the world have the same wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest people (Oxfam 2014). This latter statistic represents the 'plebs', those consigned to the pile marked 'less rich', 'less influential' and thus 'less important'. These are the people staring up at the money wall. The fact is that in this fast-paced world of amazing advances in technology, communication and civil rights, our class system resembles something out of a Dickens novel.
Amidst the banker-bashing and the old Etonian photos, we have a culture which brazenly allows those with the highest parental income and influence to climb to the top. These people may be the ones with the highest pay packets, but they certainly aren't the ones who keep society ticking. The plebs are used to their voicelessness. But being mistreated is more hopeless and more frustrating when those in power are an exclusive and seemingly impenetrable minority who don't live in the real world.
And what's more, it really doesn't need to be this way. The abolition of private schools would demolish one of the most tangible remaining boundaries between the upper elite and the working people. But let's not kid ourselves. Reform, either top-down or bottom-up will be limited by the deeply-rooted, archaic system in which the gentry reigns. All we can do for now is to put our efforts into keeping police officers far, far away from public-schooled politician-cyclists.