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Chief Whip's burst of temper doesn't require his resignation

What a shame no-one seems to have recorded the exchanges between Andrew Mitchell and the police at the Downing Street gates on Wednesday night.

Without any such direct evidence, not only may we never know whether the Chief Whip did call the officers "morons" and "f****** plebs" and tell them to "learn their f****** place", but we're also deprived of the prospect of an autotuned musical version of the row storming into the charts.

Even if we don't get to hear Mr Mitchell's rant vie with Nick Clegg's apology for the No 1 slot, there is no shortage of crowd- pleasing material to be had from Gategate, as it has inevitably been labelled.

First, there is the fun of watching media commentators reel with shock at the suggestion the Chief Whip might possibly be a foul-mouthed bully, prepared to berate and intimidate less powerful figures to get his own way when, as they all know perfectly well, that is the job description of a Whip. You'd think none of them had ever watched The Thick of It.

I forget which Whip it was who once threatened to turn another MP's spectacles into contact lenses, but the Labour Whip Bob Mellish (a former docker from Bermondsey) once bawled out an MP who wanted to be let off a vote in order to have dinner with the Prime Minister. Not only that, but he was heard to add (adjectival expletives deleted): "And if f Wilson thinks he's missing the f division, he's got another f think coming."

Mr Mitchell's case differs from this common abuse, fairly routine among whips of all parties, because his alleged comments can be seen as exemplifying the arrogance, sense of superiority and refusal to see that the rules apply to them, which is so typical of cyclists.

Some of the more prejudiced among you might have expected that I was going to say Tories, and for precisely that reason, Mr Mitchell's outburst is unfortunate for the Government. The most damaging accusation is, in fact, not the swearing but the alleged use of the word "pleb", which some of Mr Mitchell's supporters have already rushed to say they think is highly unlikely.

I agree this would be likely to confirm the depiction of the Chief Whip as pompous, nasty and possessed of a conviction of his own superiority – all of which (I have never met him) may well be the case. If the word wasn't used, however, it is possible that he simply lost his temper in the way that, if we are honest, most of us have at least been tempted to do when confronted by what seems like petty "jobsworth" attitudes.

That is, or course, still to be deplored – the police officers were simply doing their jobs, and all this ridiculous security was brought in by politicians in the first place. But it is at least a normal human reaction, rather than evidence of a certainty that people like him were born to rule, as the use of "pleb" would suggest.

Unfortunately, in the absence of recorded evidence, we will probably never know for sure in this case. But such intemperate explosions of frustration, and indeed the general lack of common courtesy and civility, seem to be becoming more common. The primary cause must be a general coarsening of public behaviour which has been taking place, and indeed accelerating, for about half a century.

This is driven by all sorts of things, not all of them necessarily undesirable in themselves: social liberalism; class mobility; the cultural emphasis on "authenticity" and personal liberty; the odd idea that it is snobbish to disapprove of some forms of behaviour, dress, or modes of expression, even when many were previously regarded as obviously anti-social.

It may also have been compounded, though, by the very expansion of rules and regulations, and the glee which a small minority of officials in all walks of life seem to take in enforcing them. It's not that we need these rules to stop people behaving in an anti-social fashion – Britain was a considerably more civil society during periods when none of these regulations were considered necessary, because informal mechanisms, such as basic manners and consideration, constrained people's behaviour – but rather that the very existence of the rules fosters resentment and encourages people to test their boundaries.

Television documentaries following police officers about their duties frequently show them on the receiving end of appalling abuse and bad language. But they also often show the police threatening to arrest those same people for swearing – something which Mr Justice Bean ruled in the High Court that they have no power to do, and which is in fact against the guidelines issued by the Metropolitan Police themselves.

This is a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs, because we have had a terrible demonstration in the past week of the danger in which police officers are required to put themselves as part and parcel of their jobs. But on some occasions, members of the public have every right to challenge the police's authority – something of which we have also had a sharp reminder in the report on Hillsborough exposing the deceit, and probable criminality, of the police investigation.

Mr Mitchell's outburst, even if we take the most generous view and accept his account of it, is a perfectly good reason for us to disapprove of his behaviour. It is also a good reason to wish for a return to the informal social mechanisms which once made such aggressive bad manners unthinkable, even from figures as abrasive as party whips, and especially when directed at those less powerful.

But to regard this burst of temper as something which requires Mr Mitchell to resign or, even more bizarrely, to claim it somehow invalidates the Prime Minister's expression of support for the police after last week's shootings, is to confuse bad manners with something requiring formal remedies rather than an apology.

The potential friction between the public and public officials is compounded rather than diminished by being made a formal matter. What is required from both sides need not involve any guidelines, by-laws, regulation or legislation. It requires basic good manners from all the parties.

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