Monday, 2 November 2009

Political expediency insults us all

The very public spat between Alan Johnson (UK Home Secretary) and David Nutt (now ex-Chair of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs) makes for entertaining political theatre – but it is profoundly depressing.

Professor Nutt had the temerity to state publicly that alcohol and tobacco were more dangerous than cannabis (something I thought was common knowledge) and that it was a nonsense to have cannabis classified in the middle rather than lower category of drugs with the consequent penal consequences for use. Professor Nutt is no libertarian hippy but is rather against the misuse of harmful substances. His trouble is that he is guided by research on the actual effects of different drugs and the demonstrable results of policies to deal with misuse.

The problem for Alan Johnson, who is equally against the misuse, and that’s the irony, is that political expediency means that he wants to play the hard man on drugs because they are perceived as the preserve of low-life who will only respond to punitive measures. (Middle class people may suffer from problems but we’re OK with that if they get help and we recognise that celebrities and aristos are different creatures altogether who need to be indulged - or at least we appear to.) He doesn’t want to go with the evidence (a) because it would seem weak to downgrade some drugs and (b) because logic would dictate an attack on the availability and use of alcohol. It’s been hard enough to tackle smoking and that was only possible because by-and-large middle-England had turned against it. Alcohol’s a different matter because voters like it and because like many other substances it is not harmful in reasonable quantities. There is a real issue here which needs to be openly discussed and probably no legislative solution that will solve the problems.

What is insulting is that Alan Johnson would prefer us not to be aware of the evidence. He wants to maintain a deceptive line that will scare us away from drugs. If the message is not politically expedient he and his colleagues shoot the messenger and rubbish the message.

We have had another example in recent weeks. A carefully researched report suggested that formal learning should not begin in primary schools until 6 – that young children learned best through play (actually play is a significant means of learning for all ages and should not be demeaned). Ministers dismissed the report before it was published and disingenuously characterised it as saying that children should not attend school until 6. They think that the public believes that teaching automatically results in learning (far from true as many of us can testify) and therefore children must be sat down and told. Accepting the report, even for discussion, might make them look weak. Another opportunity for public reflection lost.

Alan Johnson, one of the few senior politicians in any party not from an elite background, ought to be someone who trusts people's ability to understand that issues may be complex. But no, he seems to want to place us in a position of an uniformed choice of agreeing or disagreeing with what he says. It would be no better (and, on the evidence of history, worse) were the Conservative party to be elected next year. Political posturing and expediency insults us all.

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