What happens when you swear at the police, when you're not Andrew Mitchell

Whether or not the Chief Whip said “plebs” is irrelevant if he is allowed to evade the rule of law applicable to the ordinary people, says Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi.

One summer evening, back in August 2005, Andrew Michael Southard was arrested because he swore at a police officer.

Southard and his brother were out cycling when two officers stopped them one evening in central Portsmouth. As the officers searched his brother, Andrew took pictures of the incident on his mobile phone saying, “Don’t fucking touch me, you can’t touch him.” This and telling the officer to “fuck off” led to his immediate arrest.

Southard was charged, and later convicted in the magistrates court, of using “threatening, insulting and abusive behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby, contrary to section 5(1) and (6) of the Public Order Act 1986”.

Southard’s case is not unusual. Swearing at a police officer is the common cause for many young people (as young as 12 in the case of a pint-sized offender arrested and convicted under the Public Order Act because he called an officer "a wanker"), ending up embroiled in the criminal justice system.

For many of the young people continuously stopped and searched by police where I live in East London there is a thin line between a routine stop and a hearing at the mags with a criminal record looming over your future. Irritated because this is the second time you have been stopped today? Stopped at a tube station, angry because everyone is staring and thinking you're a criminal? Swear in frustration and they have you, a perfectly legitimate arrest under the Public Order Act.

The Sun newspaper reported today that Andrew Mitchell said to a police officer last week: “Best you learn your f***ing place. You don’t run this f***ing government. You’re f***ing plebs.” A kid in Hackney saying half as much to an officer last Wednesday would be in the magistrates court this morning fighting for bail.

So it is galling that Andrew Mitchell has not been arrested, charged, and made to put his defence to the courts, the way countless young people are obliged to every day.

And it is galling that the media and other politicians are chiding him only for being “discourteous” and “rude”.  Even worse, that left-leaning commentators and politicians are only aghast at the use of the word “pleb”. Those class warriors wringing their hands over Tory snobbery are just as out of touch. Whether or not he said “plebs” is irrelevant if he is allowed to evade the rule of law applicable to the ordinary people.

It is precisely such rampant hypocrisy that fuels the sense of disenfranchisement that contributed to the rioting last year. Then commentators compared looters to MPs fiddling expenses, an odd comparison as the situations are very different. But here, in a rare instance where the experience of a politician mirrors life lived by ordinary people, there is a real analogy to be made. Here we have a politician breaking the law in the same way teenagers do every day, swearing in frustration at a public official. Yet he is not being hauled to court to defend or explain his actions; instead it is trial by Twitter and Radio 4, at worst he may have to resign. Where is the justice in that.

Police outside the Downing Street gate. Photo: Getty Images

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi reports and writes on immigration, women and economics, housing, legal aid, and mental health. Read her latest work here. Her blog rebeccaomonira.com was shortlisted for the 2012 Orwell Prize. She tweets @Rebecca_Omonira.

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Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.