barriers to cycling (part 1)

In a week of waffle – on the ugly spat between Andrew Mitchell and his gate-keepers – there’s been exactly zero comment on the fact that a senior member of the Government might choose to travel by bike. Fifteen years ago such zany behaviour would have had him labelled as an odd and remarkable fellow; ‘the bicycling whip’. A first lesson to draw from the affair is that a posh person choosing to get about on an – insert compulsory adjective – humble bicycle is now a non-story.

It’s now unworthy of comment to find toffs travelling by bike, after all their social status is inviolable. This may not be much help to others who had less money spent on their education and whose parents were not Government ministers, but it’s still a positive development. In all the talk of contempt and condescension, even though bicycle-travel is a key element in the narrative – nobody has denounced Andrew Mitchell as a cyclist.

The tale of hot-temper has another lesson; that authority has trouble categorising bicycle-traffic. In this period in history, in the UK, if you enjoy the simple luxury of cycle-travel, you have to get used to occasional, ritual humiliation.

The third lesson is that Andrew Mitchell is clearly not much of a politician. When confronted with injustice an activist has three basic choices…

  • To fight, Mitchell has a military background but clearly shooting his way out of the vehicle gate was not a practical option. The streets of SW1 are made for tanks, there are barracks of elite troops standing very close by. If he’d gone for the Maoist option – “political power comes from the barrel of a gun” – he may have got away with his life but it probably wouldn’t have helped his career?
  • To defer, politely to ‘jobsworth’ authority and make, in due course, reasoned complaint, to the proper authorities, that the new Downing Street Gate policy is both unfair and inconvenient.
  • To take non-violent direct action; on being told that the riding gate could not be opened, that ‘for reasons of security’ he’d have to dismount and walk back to the pedestrian gate, Mr. Mitchell could have explained courteously to his obstructors that they were clearly discriminating against human-powered vehicular traffic and calmly insist that they arrest him so he could make his case in court. If this demand had been refused he could have used his handy ‘D’ lock to shackle himself to the gates and wait for something to happen. If convicted he could have refused to take any conditional discharge, refused to pay any fine, gone to jail and started a hunger-strike.

All he actually did was rant. The exact terms of his discourse are still contested but nobody is denying he lost control. He became impolite which is impolitic.

Mitchell’s verbal incontinence has obscured the real issue. His grovelling apologies say nothing of the injustice that provoked his childish wrath. His lack of self-control means an opportunity, to focus national debate on whether it’s OK to force people on push bikes to WALK, when those in limousines get to ride, has been lost.

He must resign.