Buying only two newspapers, the Leinster Express, the weekly newspaper for Co Laois, and the Irish Farmers’ Journal; listening only to RTE radio, or the occasional programme on a local station; there are some news stories that slip by unnoticed. Apparently, last week, the chief whip of the British government, a man called Mitchell resigned because he had been abusive to policemen who told him he couldn’t ride his bicycle out of Downing Street.
Mr Mitchell wouldn’t have had such problems in the 1970s; then he could have gone up and down the street on a unicycle and no-one would have barred the way.
Being taken to London on a school visit in 1975 brought a direct encounter with members of the government. Having visited the House of Commons, where our host had been the genial Ray Mawby, then Tory MP for Totnes, we arrived in Downing Street as a meeting was ending at Number Ten. The opportunity for autograph hunting was too good to miss.
Taking a postcard of the House of Commons from a bag of souvenirs and borrowing a biro from our teacher, the first target was Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary. ‘Mr Jenkins, can I have your autograph?’
‘Oh, all right, but quickly before a crowd gathers’.
‘Who was that man?’ asked an onlooker as I turned back.
‘The Home Secretary’.
Jenkins was followed by Education Secretary, Fred Mulley, and then an even better target. From the Saint James’s Park end of the street came James Callaghan, the Foreign Secretary, with a foreign visitor. ‘Mr Callaghan, can I have your autograph?’
‘You would do much better to ask this man. He is the deputy prime minister of Egypt’.
Not wishing to be discourteous, I handed the visitor my postcard and pen. We walked down the street together, Callaghan asking about our school and our visit to London.
‘We’d better go in here’, he said, ‘the Prime Minister is waiting for us’.
On the steps of Number 10, Harold Wilson stood, smiling.
1975 was at the height of IRA terrorism, yet teenage boys were allowed to wander unchallenged around Downing Street; government minister were people content to move around without a phalanx of security men. Even four years later, visiting London as an eighteen year old, standing on the pavement opposite the door of Number 10 and shouting, ‘Power to the people’ as David Owen stepped from a limousine brought no more than a contemptuous glance from a policeman.
The deeper problem in the British body politic is not the attitude of the former chief whip, it is the system symbolised by the Downing Street gates, the barrier between those in power and ordinary people. Somewhere along the way, perhaps in the Blair years with the obsession with presentation and spin, a chasm opened between those holding high office and those standing on the pavement; an arrogance and self-importance that regarded image and office prior to principle. Politicians connected with ordinary people would not insult them, least of all would they insult policemen.