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U.K.'s Simmering Class Tensions Roil Over 'Plebe' Flap

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A political scandal in the United Kingdom involving a bicycle, a police officer and a bad-tempered Cabinet minister has laid bare lingering tensions over the British class system.

The controversy has provided ammunition to those who charge the Conservative Party-led government is out of touch with ordinary Britons.

Earlier this month, one of the policemen guarding the prime ministerial complex at Downing Street told an obscure British Cabinet minister, Chief Conservative Whip Andrew Mitchell, that he could not ride his bicycle out the main gate. Mitchell was told to walk it through the narrower pedestrian gate instead.

All involved agree on what happened next: Mitchell lost his temper.

But according to the policeman, Mitchell allegedly and repeatedly used the F-word in the altercation that followed. Even worse, in the eyes of many Britons, the minister allegedly called the nearby officers "plebes" — from the Latin plebeian, meaning "commoner."

It's the kind of slang associated in Britain with over-bred, old Etonians gazing sneeringly down at "the little people."

Mitchell has apologized, and also noted that he "didn't show the police the respect I should have done." But the minister has also taken issue with the officer's allegation that he used the word "plebe."

"I'm very clear about what I've said and what I didn't say," Mitchell told the press. "And I want to make it absolutely clear that I did not use the words that were attributed to me."

Mitchell's fellow Conservative, Prime Minister David Cameron, has also weighed in on the controversy.

"What Andrew Mitchell said and what he did was not appropriate," Cameron said last week. "It was wrong. And it's right that he's apologized. He's apologized to me and, much more importantly, he's apologized thoroughly to the police and that needs to be done."

Ben Brogan of the Daily Telegraph says Cameron's statement is prime ministerial damage containment. He says Cameron has worked to modernize the image — if not always the reality — of the Conservative Party.

"Given that David Cameron has spent so long trying to detoxify the Tory brand and get away from this idea that it is somehow the 'nasty party,' this behavior would seem to reinforce that perception," he says.

No audio recordings of the encounter have surfaced. But classics scholar Edith Hall says she thinks Mitchell is guilty based precisely on the very class system whose simmering, throbbing nerves this controversy has exposed.

"One of the reasons I'm convinced he did use that word is, it's just not the sort of thing a policeman would invent," Hall says.

The Police Federation of England and Wales has called for Mitchell to be fired. But his job seems safe, for now.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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