Andrew Mitchell is in trouble for calling a police officer a ‘pleb’. He apparently swore as well, but the ‘p’ word is his real problem. Just this morning, on Radio 4’s Today program, we were reminded by a classical scholar that plebs were the non-aristocratic class of Ancient Rome, ruled over by patricians and aristocrats, in a culture quite unlike today’s democracies in which the government are the servants of the governed.

Mitchell’s disdain for the lower orders has no place in modern society. Nobody should show the ordinary people of Britain such contempt. Nobody.

Nobody, that is, except the Institute for Government and the Cabinet Secretary, Head of Britain’s Civil Service Sir Gus O’Donnell, on behalf of the entire arrogant, patrician edifice of government. Sir Gus writes, in the Foreword to the Institute’s publication ‘Mindspace’:

Influencing people’s behaviour is nothing new to Government, which has often used tools such as legislation, regulation or taxation to achieve desired policy outcomes. But many of the biggest policy challenges we are now facing – such as the increase in people with chronic health conditions – will only be resolved if we are successful in persuading people to change their behaviour, their lifestyles or their existing habits. Fortunately, over the last decade, our understanding of influences on behaviour has increased significantly and this points the way to new approaches and new solutions.

They think they should seek to change people’s behaviour in areas like diet and exercise because the plebs are too stupid and rudderless to manage their own choices.

Mindspace was launched in March 2010:

MINDSPACE explores how behaviour change theory can help meet current policy challenges, such as how to:

  • reduce crime
  • tackle obesity
  • ensure environmental sustainability.

Today’s policy makers are in the business of influencing behaviour – they need to understand the effects their policies may be having. The aim of MINDSPACE is to help them do this, and in doing so get better outcomes for the public and society.

Reducing crime is certainly part of the role of government. Tackling obesity isn’t. Environmental sustainability is a waffle term for imposing the preferences of a few, mainly aristocratic, cranks on the population at large*.

Quoting further from the main report:

David Hume argued that “all plans of government which suppose great reformation in the manners of mankind are plainly imaginary”.

Such sweeping scepticism is unfounded, since there have been many policy successes in changing behaviour: for example, reducing drink driving, preventing AIDS transmission and increasing seatbelt usage. Nevertheless, some behaviours – such as antisocial behaviour and lack of exercise – have remained resistant to policy interventions. We need to think in more integrated and innovative ways about how policymakers can intervene in ways that help people help themselves – and that also help society reduce inequalities in health and wellbeing that are avoidable and considered unfair.

The entire document reeks of patrician arrogance. It gets the relationship between citizens and government exactly wrong: it is we, the voters, who should get to influence the behaviour of governments by voting for the ones who promise to behave in ways we want.

Instead, professional politicians lie to gain power, then try to modify the beliefs, behaviour and allegiances of the plebs.

Mitchell was just too honest.



* You might enjoy Lobos Motl’s reply to the question “How to stop a star”. The question includes this gem:

One might say that, on time scales measured in trillions of years, the stars are an unsustainable use of the universe’s fuel.


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  • “…in a culture quite unlike today’s democracies in which the government are the servants of the governed.”

    Did you type that with your tongue firmly in cheek? 😉

  • Des Risdon

    “Reducing crime is certainly part of the role of government. Tackling obesity isn’t.”

    Oh yes it is and will be as long as folks rely on the publicly-funded health services. I won’t bother to list the health issues related to obesity for they are too well known; same with smoking.

  • Peter Risdon

    Obesity certainly does have health consequences, and so does smoking. However, a public health system does not warrant or mandate state control of your fridge and leisure habits. If we have a public health system we have to put up with the habits of fellow citizens even if we dislike them.

    People voted for health care free at the point of use, not for a Birkenstock sandal stamping forever on a human face.

  • Jon Lawrence Risdon

    Interesting discussion. Without wanting to bring the Shibboleth of faith [and not in an exclusively religious context] into it, if people could be helped to have belief in their own power to determine [and thereby create] their own future [aka reality], there would [IMHO] be far less dependence on publicly-funded health care; good [and, again IMHO essential] that it is available, but it seems that many people use it because their poor physical & mental health, in a holistic sense, is a direct result of the constant demoralisation they are subject to; and, of course, that they believe what all the ‘experts’ tell them, not having the mental fortitude to decide for themselves. The cause of the underlying demoralisation is, understandably, a matter for much debate.