Plebgate: Andrew Mitchell was right to resign

2 September 2014

Saville Kushner3
Professor Saville Kushner

Professor Saville Kushner

Professor Saville Kushner has 30 years’ experience working with the Home Office and the police service on policing culture and national police training. He has served as advisor on a ministerial working party on police training. He has worked at the University of the West of England and is now at the University of Auckland. He writes about the Plebgate incident:

If Andrew Mitchell did not call a police constable a “f***ing pleb” he might, nonetheless, have used the word ‘pleb’. If he didn’t use the word ‘pleb’ he might have sworn at the officer. If he didn’t swear at the officer he might have threatened him. If he didn’t threaten him he most surely argued with him.

The police officers were given discretion to open the vehicle gates to Downing Street or not. It was their judgement call. In the background is the calculation that each and every time those gates are open carries a risk – small, perhaps, but terrorists work with margins. On that occasion – no doubt following a pattern of such decisions – they judged it best not to. Whatever else Andrew Mitchell did or did not do, he argued with the officer’s judgement. Rightly, this is treated with seriousness by the police. We do not rely on a Chief Constable passing down an order each time a gate is to be opened. When a police officer receives his or her attestation on  graduating from training this is more than a symbolic act. It says that the officer now carries the authority of his Chief Officer – an authority backed up by the Crown.

That Andrew Mitchell had to resign over such a ‘trivial incident’ was inevitable, given the politics of the suspicion of ‘pleb’. It was, on rational grounds, probably regrettable and bewildering, but, nonetheless, still justified. He did, in a very real sense, challenge the authority of the Crown, under whose appointment he works. It seems he had form, too. But we are still not quite at the nub.

The Commander of the Metropolitan Police Force went after the officers who had caused unlawful mayhem with tweets and false allegations. He was right to do that, given the somewhat inflated aspirations of one officer who sought to “bring down the government” and the obvious possibility of obstructing the course of justice. This was behaviour which would have been unlikely 10 years ago when there was a rigorous national police training system that rooted out outlaw behaviour of which we have seen too much recently. But police training has been dismembered by the cuts.

Even so, this behaviour stands as indication of the febrile relations between an over-zealously austere government and its police service which, since the heady days of Thatcher, expects more than cuts and recriminations. The police, no less than teachers, nurses, social workers and others, feel betrayed by a government that is supposed to protect it. The context is one of the erosion of respect by government for cherished public institutions.

But the Commander pointedly did not support the officer who had made the decision not to open the gate. Was Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe cowed by the threat of further economic sanction by an truculent, overpowerful government? But here is the real threat to public order. A Chief Officer – for whatever of his own calculations – failed to robustly defend the right of officers to use their discretion.

What this risks, in an already poisoned climate, is constables nervous to use their discretion for fear of not having the support of their Chief. The intelligent, considered use of discretion by police is a cornerstone of policing by consent, which itself, is a foundation of a liberal society. Andrew Mitchell should, indeed, have resigned, but on the bigger issue of his complicity in official lack of respect for a public service.

News Focus articles are the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Campaign for Social Science.