Keep calm and… what next?


WELCOME TO LILLIPUT! Or Brobdingnag – who even knows about that old stuff anymore? Obviously, what I mean is – a place where big things are little and little things are big and those who have seemed huge are suddenly tiny, and vice versa. But not even reliably so; they are quite likely to shrink or expand at any moment, to continue morphing into something else throughout your feeble attempts to fix them into a vaguely comprehensible form.

Keep Calm on rugs, mugs and inspirational office posters.

Some years ago, a government poster from the Second World War caught the public imagination; KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON, said the words, and soon they had migrated from the poster on the wall to mugs and fridge magnets and backpacks. And the words themselves were often adapted; SAVE MONEY AND DRINK CHAMPAGNE was the most recent greetings-card incarnation I saw. Predictably enough, those who might at some point have happily decorated the space over their desks with KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON – the phrase conveying a sort of distracted industry, a seat-of-the-pants determination to face whatever challenges may come – now loathe its many manifestations, its multi-commodification or, put more simply, its popularity. It is now referred to as a meme, but interestingly, it is the ubiquity of the meme that has given offence to the early adopters, rather than the fact that a message designed to soothe those terrified by war has now been adapted to become a humorous salve to those with a deadline crunch.

Get Shafted And Carry On – protesting police cuts in May 2012, photo by Chris John Beckett

Ha! See how easily it is done, the Lilliput thing? It’s only a poster, Alex. People do not actually intend to belittle the experiences of the British people during the Blitz. In fact, the truth is, they just like the font.

But as memes – or what used to be called fads – go, KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON has demonstrated impressive longevity. It was not, therefore, a great surprise to see police officers make use of it in their recent protest against the Conservative Party Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell. To reprise: a few weeks ago, Mitchell was leaving Downing Street on his bicycle, when he was stopped by on-duty police officers and told to use a different exit. Because he was at the end of a long and difficult day, he has subsequently said (no one said coalition government was going to be easy, buster!), and because he had used the exit he wanted to use without hindrance on previous occasions, he became annoyed. A robust exchange ensued. The precise nature of its vocabulary is disputed and that, nearly one month later, means that Mitchell’s political career remains in jeopardy. Oh, and that high-level police officers and politicians continue to attend meetings and issue statements, and journalists continue to write about it.

Mitchell is accused, first and foremost, of calling the police officers “plebs.” An additional instruction told them to “know their place”. It is unlikely that this class-riven country (see, er, several previous entries) can conceive of a rag redder with which to enrage a bull; it is impossible to think of someone from whom the word pleb could issue with more offence than a Tory cabinet minister. Instantly, we realize that what we always suspected was true: as the rest of us heat up our gruel before burning our furniture for warmth, the Tories are laughing at our idiocy over grouse and Armagnac. If, of course, it’s true. Mitchell will concede only that he swore at the cops, which tells you something; better to be cursed than called a pleb.

Keep calm and Keep your arm extended. Also, British bobbies have better style than US cops.

“PC PLEB AND PROUD” said the T-shirts on the police officers who demonstrated outside Mitchell’s office a few days later. And, indeed, why shouldn’t they be proud, whether they’re “plebs” or otherwise? Or, looked at another way, why should they be proud? You are what you are, right? Although it might be noted that those British police dramas that feature an upper-class twit arriving as the new top detective, who has slowly to win around his lower-class, salt-of-the-earth subordinates, are far more common than the other way around.

Will Mitchell survive the fall-out? Who knows? He doesn’t have the advantage of public affection, unlike London Mayor Boris Johnson, whom it is not absolutely impossible to imagine using similar language, although, of course, that doesn’t for a minute mean that he, erm, would. There is a suspicion, currently, that the police authorities are over-playing their hand; one, for example, claimed that the idea that the officers in question would have their contemporaneous notes of the incident disbelieved has implications for other officers who are called to give evidence in court. This seems unlikely, really. It also seems more likely that the recent emergence of the truth about the Hillsborough disaster, in which police officers are accused of falsifying their accounts in order to blame football fans for a disaster in which 96 of them died, and which led to a campaign by the victims’ relatives that lasted for over twenty years in the face of a widespread institutional cover-up, has had a rather more seriously damaging effect.

Nonetheless. Who knows, any more, what will lead to punishment and what will not? Mitchell’s contretemps with the authorities took place the day after the horrific murder of two female police officers in Manchester; answering what they thought was a routine call, they were met with a gun and grenade attack launched by a violent criminal.

Last week, a man was jailed for walking through the streets of Manchester in the hours after the murders, wearing a white Reebok T-shirt, on which he had scrawled the words “One less pig; perfect justice.” On its back, he had written: “Kill a cop for Ha, Haaa?”

Do we want to be a country that imprisons people for making vile and offensive remarks? In some ways, surely, yes: do I care that a sick fuck who brought further distress to an area traumatised by the psychopathic and vicious murder of two young women has to go to prison for a short while? Not really, although I do if, as his defence team suggested, he had long-standing mental health issues. Do I think his incarceration solves anything about the existence of sick fucks, about the attitudes of some of those sick fucks towards the authorities, about the inability of the authorities to cope with them? I do not. Do I think Andrew Mitchell should have thought a bit more carefully about his own political party’s attitude towards law and order before he excoriated the police for not letting him ride his bike exactly where he wanted to? I do, really. But does it matter, ultimately? No. It does not. Except, perhaps, here in Swiftland.

About Alex Clark

Alex Clark is a freelance journalist living in London, writing about books, arts, football and a whole host of other things for papers such as The Guardian and The Observer. She is also editor at large of Union Books and the former editor of Granta.
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