Sunday, 8 November 2009

Alan Johnson: With God on his side...

To be the Home Secretary of Her Majesty’s Government must rank among the loneliest jobs in the world, morally speaking. Just consider the number of hot-button public issues on which you are the nation’s chief and guiding voice – crime, the police, immigration, class-A drugs, the terrorist threat, inter alia. There's a distinct danger you could end up catching the blame for just about everything that's wrong with the nation at any given time.
Whether incumbents are actually fit to hold this post - or merely there because the government of which they are a part could appoint no-one better - is a different matter entirely. For instance, I remember Margaret Thatcher’s last H.S., David Waddington, as a would-be hang-'em-and-flog-'em martinet of such cardboard-cut-out ridiculousness that I always expected him to blow over in a stiff breeze. (Moreover, I don’t think that professional Yorkshireman David Blunkett ever deserved to be taken a fraction as seriously in the job as he took himself; and as for Jacqui Smith, one can, presumably, hold fire now inasmuch as she herself now seems to agree that she was a ‘disgrace.’)
It is tough, though, for an honest man in that job to act on his convictions and carry out policy in the spirit of the public good, without getting pelted by dead dogs. I recall the honourable Charles Clarke going on the BBC to debate his Tory shadow in front of a studio audience prior to the 2005 General Election. For all that no-one was warming to the Tory, Clarke was nonetheless sneered at roundly throughout, and never more than when he defended the need for extreme vigilance, expenditure, and emergency measures to counter the threat of domestic terrorism. Paxman (for he, of course, was our MC for the night) turned loftily to the audience and asked if any of them were feeling remotely threatened in that respect? Not one hand went up, the silence clearly signifying a mass disapproval of Clarke's police-state apologia. Three months later, after the London bombings of 07/07/2005, I’m sure the same mob would have said that Clarke should have bloody well gone to any lengths to avert the atrocity, even without the public’s backing or sympathy (and, anyway, it was all Nu-Labour/B-liar’s fault anyhow, etc etc.)
So, to Alan Johnson. Every once in a while you see a politician who strikes you as a recognisable human being – and an honest, sane, principled, witty and astute one at that. Johnson is the most affable contender in this line whom I can remember, and I wish his career every continuing success. I have watched his tenure at the Home Office meet with various choruses of disapproval, none of them meaningful (and some as ludicrous as the Daily Mail’s campaign to prevent the extradition of the computer hacker Gary MacKinnon, who, I’m afraid, made his bed once he started leaving abusive messages behind him on the Pentagon's systems.)
Currently Johnson is getting it in the neck over his decision to sack a chap called Professor Nutt, chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) after Nutt went to great lengths to ensure the public knew that it was his view – if not the Government’s – that alcohol and tobacco are more dangerous than cannabis, that taking Ecstasy is no more dangerous than horse-riding, and that cannabis has upgraded to a class B drug for ‘political reasons.’
Here is the nub of the Home Secretary’s existential dilemma. How can drug policy be made subject to scientific finding when the use and abuse of drugs is a social issue, and the effects of same can’t be reproduced in any laboratory? Or as Alan Johnson phrased it in a letter to the Guardian last week:
“As for [Nutt’s] comments about horse riding being more dangerous than Ecstasy, which you quote with such reverence, it is of course a political rather than a scientific point. There are not many kids in my constituency in danger of falling off a horse – there are thousands at risk of being sucked into a world of hopeless despair through drug addiction.”
Yes, alcohol is our national drug and is indulged beyond belief in a culture where the (clear) benefits of cannabis as a form of pain relief for the seriously ill are still (pointlessly) subjected to debate. I would probably prefer it if, rather than this current useless quarrel, we could all have a serious one, about the legalisation of all drugs. But since the public and our politics won’t permit that, let’s deal with the supposedly deterrent measures at hand, i.e. how the Government frames its level of concern over the possible risks of certain drugs, a level at which the keen drug-user must then frame his or her response (i.e., caveat emptor.)
This blog is an unshamed fan of the occasional derangement of the senses, and always has been; and any man who - like this man - appreciates beer, wine and whiskey should therefore try not to make an enemy of the man who finds his contentment of an evening in cannabis. But these fairly like-minded enthusiasms also carry undeniable costs, personal and social, at differential levels; and so all enthusiasts must be ready to circle the wagons around certain agreed norms. A poster calling himself onestepback phrases it well at the Sky News link cited above: "Alcohol and tobacco are of course bad for us, and knowing this we should discourage the use of other substances of like kind. We can do the liberal thing and erode society by allowing everything, or we can apply common sense and limit things that are bad for us to a manageable proportion."
This, de facto, is the position where we find Alan Johnson, and it seems to me the right place for Her Majesty's Home Secretary to be. I hope he has longer to run in this job, and that a yet better job lies in wait for him.


Kauders said...

The question, surely, though is not: should we have a laissez-faire policy on drugs but rather: does legal prohibition in fact inhibit drugs' various destructive effects (which once they are banned but not otherwise include the social effects of the criminalized markets in which they are distributed).

Richard T Kelly said...

Kauders, I shouldn't have raised the legalisation spectre, since it makes me queasy and I can never be bothered to reason it through... Laissez-faire is, yes, utterly unacceptable, and yes, the vast social cost of the criminal drugs economy is the chief reason why the state should consider putting the pusherman out of business... I don't see either of these approaches being ventured in my lifetime, and if prohibition there be, then I do endorse the current and sensible Johnson position.